Two Minnesota bowlers reach milestones at 2019 USBC Open Championships

By Matt Cannizzaro and Daniel Farish
USBC Communications

Bowling fans at the 2019 United States Bowling Congress Open Championships experienced a double dose of history Sunday night as two bowlers reached participation milestones at the South Point Bowling Plaza.

Jim Bigelbach of St. Paul, Minnesota, became the first bowler this year to reach the 60-year plateau, while Thomas Groh Sr. of Ham Lake, Minnesota, hit the 50-year mark.

Bigelbach is one of three bowlers scheduled to celebrate 60 years of participation during the 2019 event, and he received a chevron, plaque and engraved money clip to commemorate the milestone.

Groh was the sixth of this year's 23 bowlers slated to celebrate five decades on the championship lanes, and he received a chevron, plaque and diamond lapel pin for the achievement.

Bowling has been a family affair for Bigelbach, who only had been bowling a few years when he was invited to participate in his first Open Championships. His debut came in his hometown of St. Paul in 1951.

"My dad bowled with a bunch of guys who were older than me, and they needed someone at the last minute," said Bigelbach, who became the 26th bowler in history to reach the 60-year mark at the Open Championships. "I was 19 years old, and I had no clue what to expect. I was nervous, and I didn't want to let those guys down."

Some of the pictures bowlers see adorning the walls of the South Point Bowling Plaza were a reality for Bigelbach at his first Open Championships, where the expected attire was dress shirts and ties.

"I had never bowled in a tie before, and I asked them, 'Do I really have to bowl in a tie?'" Bigelbach said. "Well, the answer was yes. It's not like that now, obviously. That has changed. A lot has changed."

As a former proprietor and coach, Bigelbach has seen the changes first-hand, whether it's the apparel worn during tournaments, bowling balls or even the bowling styles seen on the lanes today.

Bigelbach got his start in the bowling industry by managing an eight-lane bowling center that was underneath a gymnasium on a church campus. Primarily used by the congregation, hardly anyone knew how to bowl, Bigelbach recalled.

"I established a league there, a classic league, and we became the strongest league in the city," Bigelbach said. "That's where I really got into it. Not just the business, but also coaching. I managed there until 1989, and then I bought Falcon Bowl."

His time at Falcon Bowl ended when the land was sold, so he moved on to a bowling center in nearby Bloomington, Minnesota. He again had the opportunity to introduce a community to the sport he loved, before the venue suffered a similar fate.

While he may not be in the bowling business anymore, Bigelbach still is a fixture in the local bowling community. He bowls league at Flaherty's Arden Bowl with his son and grandson and still offers any help he can to his local bowling center and bowlers.

Flaherty's became the new home for the league Bigelbach started in the church bowling center, and it has become a competitive home for him and his family.

Bigelbach also passed the Open Championships passion and tradition on, and he was joined on the lanes this year in Las Vegas by his son, Brian, who made his 25th consecutive tournament appearance.

One of the great things about the Open Championships is the opportunity to travel around the country and experience new cities. The memories and friendships created during these travels are what stand out in Bigelbach's memories over the last six decades.

"Some of my favorite cities were Cincinnati (1968) and Baltimore (1982) because we did a lot of things outside of the bowling, including exploring the cities and enjoying our time away from the lanes," Bigelbach said. "But, my favorite was probably Huntsville (Alabama) in 1997. That was the first time my wife and son both bowled with me at Nationals. I'll never forget that."

The biggest thing Bigelbach said stands out from his bowling career is the friendships. People start out as friends and turn into brothers and sisters.

GrohThomasSr2019OCForWeb250x140One of those people in his life is Groh, who, as mentioned earlier, celebrated his own Open Championships milestone Sunday when he was recognized as the newest member of the 50-Year Club.

Groh started his Open Championships career in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1969 as a 26-year-old, but his march to 50 began a lot sooner than that.

It was a decision made at the age of 8 that started him down the road he still travels on.

"When I was 8, I bowled and played basketball," Groh said. "Well, my mom told me I had to choose one or the other because we couldn't afford both. Once I was done with the basketball season, I told my mom I wanted to bowl."

Groh grew up watching bowling on TV every Sunday afternoon, and he never missed a show. When his mom told him to choose, it wasn't up for debate in his mind.

He used what he saw on TV to teach himself, and there were two bowlers Groh tried to mimic when it came to his own physical game.

"I really took after Ray Bluth and Tom Hennessy," Groh said. "Ray held the ball up in his stance, and I liked that. Tom was really smooth and had a long slide. I tried to set up like Ray, and deliver it like Tom."

To try and save money, Groh and his friends set pins at the local bowling center. As long as they set pins for each other, they could bowl for free. They would set up tough spares, single pins - anything that could help them get better.

As he got older, Groh was able to find a balance between his social life while bowling, and his competitiveness on the lanes.

"I was the kind of guy who had a lot of fun off the approach," Groh said. "On the approach, I was the kind of bowler you didn't want to bowl against because I wanted to win. It was a balance, and I was really good at it."

The 1972 Open Championships marked Groh's third trip to the event, and it is the one that sticks out to him the most because it was a special opportunity for him on many levels.

First, he got to bowl with his dad.

Though the circumstances weren't the most uplifting - Groh's doubles partner died suddenly before the trip - it did offer Groh and his father a chance to reconnect. It also allowed him to beat his dad, with whom he had a healthy competitive streak against.

"My dad used to be a bowler, but he hadn't picked up a ball in forever," Groh said. "I called him and asked him if he wanted to bowl with me and he said, 'Are you serious? Absolutely, I'll go out and start throwing the ball.'"

That was the only year Groh and his father got to bowl together because his father's health made it hard to travel. He died a few years later, but Groh is glad to have that memory together.

Bigelbach and Groh may have had different paths to their milestone years, but they have done it together.

As an owner of two different bowling centers, Bigelbach had one manager for 21 years, Groh's wife, Ruth.

"I've known Thomas since we were 16, and we've been together that long," Ruth said. "Jim I've known since we were kids. My dad knew his dad, so we've all kind of grown up together, in a way."

GrohBigelbach2019OCForWeb250x140Groh and Bigelbach acknowledge how big this moment is, and they uniformly said being at the tournament together made it even more special. Understandably, both men had the same reaction when asked if they were going to stop after this year's milestones.

"Why would we stop?" Groh and Bigelbach said. "We've made it this far, so we're to keep going as long as we can."

Bigelbach finished his 2019 campaign with a 1,275 all-events total, which included a 447 series in singles, 431 in team and 397 in doubles. In 60 years on the championship lanes, he has knocked down 91,889 pins for a 172 career average.

This year at the South Point Bowling Plaza, Groh rolled sets of 471 in team, 467 in singles and 421 in doubles for a 1,359 total. In 50 years, he has toppled 79,586 pins for a career average of 179.

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