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Bilich wins VGA title for second straight year

Hancock native Anthony Bilich poses with the trophy he won during the 2021 Veterans Golf Association National Championships at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey. (Provided photo)

MADISON, Wis. — While the rest of the country tuned into news outlets to hear news about Hurricane Ian as it made landfall in Florida in late September, a group of golfers from all over the country gathered in Miami for the Veterans Golf Association’s national championship.

For the second year in a row, Hancock native Anthony Bilich took home top honors, winning by four strokes in one of the most memorable experiences he has ever had playing the game, at least since he won the 2021 nationals by climbing the leaderboard the second day with four consecutive birdies to force a playoff, which he followed by making another birdie in the playoff to win.

“It was awesome,” he said. “Honestly. I felt like I could freewheel a little bit.

“Coming from behind last year, in that fashion, was really, really special. Then this year, I just felt like I was going to go out and just freewheel, have fun for the week, and not focus so much on score. Just try to play good golf and see what happens.”

With Hurricane Ian battering its way through Fort Myers, high winds and heavy rain battered Miami, home of Trump National Doral Golf Club, affectionately known as the “Blue Monster” to golfers and fans across the country.

Anthony Bilich attempts to hit his tee shot during the 2022 Veterans Golf Association National Championship at Trump National Doral Golf Club in Miami, Florida, during Hurrican Ian. (Provided photo)

Bilich, who won the VGA national championship in 2021 at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey, knew going into the 2022 tournament, things would be different this year, given the expected conditions, and the location.

With the weather taking a turn for the worse as the tournament was scheduled to begin, the traditional practice round, which gives the golfers a chance to play the course before competing on it, was canceled, and instead, the tournament began on that day.

For any golfer, not playing a golf course before competing in a tournament would be difficult, but to play for a national championship, Bilich and his opponents all entered the course essentially blind.

As conditions worsened, Bilich knew that if he could just play even par golf, he would probably put himself in a great position to defend his title.

“The second day was 30 to 40-mile-an hour sustained winds, on and off rain,” he said. “I mean, we’re on the south side of Hurricane Ian, so it was like I literally played in a hurricane. I just said, ‘You know what, pars are golden.’ If I can make 18 pars somehow, I felt like I was gonna win by a bunch.

“It was tough. It was the hardest conditions I’ve ever played in golf.”

The high winds affected shots heavily, especially during the second day.

“I was trying to explain this to one of my friends,” he said. “I hit a gap wedge, downwind, from 200 yards, and hit it on the green. The next hole, I hit 6-iron from 140 yards and didn’t even make it to the green. I could not comprehend the wind switch.”

Bilich, who has competed in four straight national championship tournaments as part of the VGA, loves winning, but admits there is much more to the entire experience than just playing in a golf tournament.

“I would say the VGA is 90% about camaraderie, and the people, and 10% about golf,” he said. “I know, at the highest level, the (Veteran) A Division has a lot, if you figure all the members nationwide, hundreds and hundreds of scratch golfers that compete throughout the year to make it to nationals. It is competitive at every level. But, at the end of the day, sitting down and having dinner and hanging out with everyone, I mean, that’s the most important thing.”

The VGA was founded in 2014 to provide an avenue for veterans, especially younger veterans like Bilich, who also grew up playing hockey in the Copper Country, to connect with each other and have a little fun, rather than sit at home and struggle.

“It was some guys just trying to figure out ways to help veterans get together,” he said. “The one thing about the military or hockey or anything, if you’re part of a team, and you (suddenly) don’t have that anymore, it’s kind of weird. The military is the ultimate team. You go overseas, or you’re in the military for a while, and then you don’t have that anymore, you kind of feel like you’re on an island a little bit.”

The VGA now puts on between 400 and 500 tournaments a year now with 15,000 members. Players have to play a minimum of three tournaments in their home state to qualify for the state tournament. If they win the state tournament, they move to a regional competition, and eventually nationals, if they keep winning.

Through the VGA, Bilich has met a number of people he now considers friends.

“It’s a really cool organization,” he said. “They do a lot of good things. It’s a nonprofit and (they) try to get veterans together. Honestly, some of my best friends in life I’ve met through this VGA thing the last four or five years. It’s turned out to be really good for me.”

Bilich earned his Purple Heart after getting wounded in a blast in Afghanistan while serving with the 1431st Engineers out of Calumet in 2009. While he compares his injuries to those a hockey player might suffer from a violent bodycheck, he knows that many veterans are in much worse shape than he is. That is part of what makes what the VGA is trying to accomplish so vital in his eyes.

“It’s a great way to get veterans together,” he said. “I’m happy I’ve won, golf-wise, the last couple of years, but the friendships and bonds I’ve made with the people over the last four or five years is definitely more important to me than the trophies.”

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