By Kevin Albarez
BATON ROUGE, La. - Vern Denault of Bradley, Ill., and Gordy Baer of Tinley Park, Ill., have bowled with or against each other since just after high school, and they now share a spot in the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships record books.
The two claimed their places in USBC Open Championships history as they became the 150th and 151st bowlers to reach 50 years of tournament participation Monday.
Denault was the first to make the milestone march down Center Aisle at the Baton Rouge River Center. He has only missed two events since his Open Championships debut in Detroit in 1961. In his career, he has traveled to 33 cities across 22 states.
When the 74-year-old right-hander started his five-decade journey, he definitely was not thinking about reaching the 50-year plateau on bowling's biggest stage.
"When I first started, I never thought about making 50 years," said Denault, whose career-high all-events total is 1,949. "As the years went by, I started looking forward to getting to that milestone. Unfortunately, it is getting harder and harder to come to the tournament. I enjoy coming each year, but it is getting harder to travel that far."
Bowling has given Denault the opportunity to make lifelong friends. He was able to share his special moment at the Open Championships with one of those friends as Baer marched down Center Aisle shortly after.
"Gordy and I have been friends for over 50 years," said Denault, who bowls at Victory Lanes in Kankakee, Ill. "We bowled together for a number of years in league. When we weren't on the same team, we were on opposing teams. It's special to get to 50 years at the same time as him."
Denault finished his 2012 Open Championship campaign with a 573 in team, 565 in doubles and 505 in singles for a 1,643 all-events total. In 50 tournaments, he has toppled 85,329 pins for a career average of 189.6.
Baer got his start at the Open Championships at the 1959 event in St. Louis.
The 72-year-old right-hander has enjoyed many successes on the championship lanes. In 1973, he led his team to the Team All-Events title and found the winner's circle again with Regular Team and Team All-Events titles in 1979.
The three-time eagle winner was anticipating this year's memorable event but was uncertain if he would be able to make it. At the beginning of 2007, he had surgery and missed that year's tournament. He had no idea how the procedure would affect his bowling.
"I was looking forward to it for the last few years," said Baer, who was inducted into the USBC Hall of Fame in 1987. "About six years ago, I had a hip replacement, and I wasn't sure if I was going to make it. I was able to get through that really well. It doesn't bother me at all, and I can't use that as an excuse anymore."
Baer also has enjoyed the friendships he made along his journey. Sharing the spotlight with a lifelong teammate and competitor was an honor for him.
"This is very special," said Baer, who bowls at Stardust Bowl II in Merrillville, Ind. "I have known Vern for around 55 years. We bowled against each other right out of high school because we had match games. We started bowling with each other in the same leagues and same teams. I went to bowl with a different team, but we still have been bowling in the same league for a long time. He is a great guy, and I am honored that we are reaching this milestone at the same time."
Baer's next goal is to become a member of the 100,000-Pin Club at the Open Championships. This year, he shot 619 in singles, 541 in doubles and 535 in team for a 1,695 all-events total. In 50 tournament appearances, he has knocked down 91, 389 pins for a career average of 203.08.
"I was looking forward to 50 years," said Baer, who worked as an accountant for 35 years. "Now, my next goal will be the 100,000 pins. I have a few more years to go, but hopefully I can make that."
Sponsors for the 2012 USBC Open Championships include Circus Circus Reno, Eldorado Hotel Casino Reno and Silver Legacy Resort Casino Reno. Other sponsors include the Belle of Baton Rouge, official brackets sponsor; Kegel, official lane maintenance provider; Humana, official registration sponsor; Bud Light and Budweiser, official beer sponsors; The Advocate, official publication sponsor; Brunswick, official lane provider; Steltronic, official scoring system; Storm Bowling Products and Nationwide Insurance.