By Rafaela Prifti-
In its 10th year, the Albanian Ryder Cup tournament contended with the Coronavirus pandemic and hurricane Isaias perhaps foreshadowing the future of community events defined by dignity, respect and pertinence in testing times. At least one team member believes that in the future, there might be a junior event or a girls’ edition for the Albanian youth. Next year’s competition will be held in August in Wisconsin, whereas an all-star team from both groups will pair together to compete against Albanians from Europe in Germany in 2021 for the Inaugural Kastrioti Cup.
Embracing the opportunity to cover the 2020 tournament edition played over three courses at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, New York from August 2 to 5 between NY and Detroit teams, I had the chance to interview New York team captains Zef Gjelaj and Sokol Selmani, and Detroit Team Co-Captain Gjon Sinishtaj, in addition to communicating with New York Team Coordinator Mark Curanaj, and members Pashk Berisha and Mark Tushaj. In terms of golf events, through the middle of the last decade, Dielli has covered fundraising efforts to support building the Mother Theresa Cathedral in Prishtina led by members of Vatra Council like Anton Raja along with Board members like Simon Qafa and others. This compilation of conversations on this week’s four-day golf tournament presents a brief history of the event originating in 2011, some highlights of the dramatic moments of the recent competition, exemplifies ways of adapting to new challenges of social gatherings and location adjustments, but above all it shows the power of human bonds. Each one of the golfers I talked to, valued the excitement of the game and the integrity of friendship. They also expressed their wish to pass down this gift to the younger Albanian generation.
The captain of New York team, Zef Gjelaj, said that this is his 8th year in a tournament that runs continuously for 10 years. “This year is the first time NY team won back to back and more interesting the first time the team won cup on home course. Calling it “our NY team”, Mr. Gjelaj said that golfers’ backgrounds are from Albania, Kosova, Montenegro and vary in range from 21 to 65 years old. He was proud of their great chemistry, adding that most of them were friends before they started playing golf. In fact, over the years, they have played together for so long, the team has become ‘a golf family.” I asked how he carries out the functions of the captain for the New York team. “I don’t say much, only except to remind them to work together. To not care for individual success because we will win as a team. “Individual commitment to a group effort that is what makes a team work” is our guiding principle,” said Mr. Gjelaj. He described with excitement the clinching of the tournament by the first year player Christian Dedvukaj who made a 7 foot putt in the last hole 18 par 5 and also the team’s MVP who is none other than two-time Champion of Dancing With the Stars, Driton Dovolani known to all as Toni Dovolani.
For Pashk Berisha of the New York team participating in the tournament as a team compounds the pressure on the player yet it increases the intensity and thrill of the sport. “Playing as a team in an annual tournament is very rewarding because you are representing your team and in this case your community as well. It is pressure packed and thrilling because you are playing for your team mates and community not just for yourself. It’s a much different feeling when your team mates rely on you and vice versa so the pressure is amplified many fold,” said Mr. Berisha. When describing how different this year’s tournament was in the pandemic situation, he said that they had to change the venue from Whistling Straits to Turning Stone, where they had to abide by social distancing and mask restrictions. “It limited the time we spent together outside smoking cigars and telling jokes because they would not allow gatherings,” commented Pashk, who explained that unlike previous years when the teams would get together in the evenings and spend hours as a group, this year the socializing was very limited due to pandemic. As far as the event, he noted that the early years had seen many controversies whereas the last few years it’s gone pretty smoothly. “The teams,” contented Mr. Berisha, “have developed friendships and bonds that will be long lasting. The competition is very serious but it has become more of an event with competitive golf than just a competition. Winning is very important but it is not the only goal; competitive golf played with integrity, dignity and respect in a gentlemanly manner that will make our community proud.”
Mark Curanaj, the New York Team Coordinator indicated to me that there are 100 Albanian golf players in the Tri-State area. While I am aware that Albanians have brought to their adopted country the passion for the popular sport of soccer, I wondered about the extent of golf’s popularity with the older demographics in the community. I asked him how he got into gold and if perhaps Mark’s father or any elderly family members who came from Montenegro were into golf. I heard him laugh cheerfully admitting that none of them particularly cared for golf. Then he explained that growing up in Westchester, meant that golf is part of your life. I asked about the discipline it requires mentally as well as physically. Mark reinforced the point of mental toughness of the sport that is a natural ability more than a trained feature. He laid out the history of the Albanian Ryder Cup, created by two longtime friends Tony Gjokaj and Luvigji Lucaj from New York and Michigan respectively. “In the first iteration in 2011, eight players gathered from each state and played 54 holes over two days at Shephards Hollow in Michigan. Curanaj, who is the New York team coordinator, recalled “the two dramatic putts on the final hole singles match between Marko Gjolaj and Martin Vulaj that galvanized the cup and the bonds that continue today’ as he put it. It ended in a tie. Since then the format has remained the same. The only adjustment has been the increased participation which has seen the number of golfers swell from 16 to 28, making 14 on each side. Each year the venue rotates between the two states and each side has added or removed players. The current teams have remained unchanged in the last five years. In the course of the five years, the best golfer on both teams with over 70% win of his matches is Shkelqim Kukaj. New York team has been led by outstanding performances by Sokol Selmani, Zef Gjelaj, Toni Dovolani and Paul Martini, who have won over 70% of their matches, whereas the Michigan team has been led by Mark Kalaj, Mark Berishaj, Gjon Sinishtaj and Anton Sinishtaj. New York has had the cup three of the last five years and was the first team to retain it after a 14-14 tie last week,” said Mr. Curanaj. He described the 2020 edition played over three courses at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, New York from August 2 to 5 for each team. Toni Dovolani, two time MVP and Mark Tushaj were undefeated for New York team. Team members raved about rookie and last-minute replacement, Christian Dedvukaj, who won two matches. In true golf commentator fashion, NY Team Coordinator remarked “Michigan was led by three undefeated individuals Mark Kalaj, Mark Berishaj and Dennis Perkaj, also MVP for Team Michigan. Team Captains Lou Lucaj and Gjon Sinishtaj. New York held a one point lead after the first day four ball matches. Here is how the local team got the 4-3 lead: Three matches ended on the 18th hole par 5 in dramatic fashion when Christian Dedvukaj got up and down from 40 yards for birdie to seal a victory and Sokol Selmani finished the final 3 holes: birdie, par, birdie after being down 2 with 3 to play.” In day two of the tournament, he said “we decided to play the alternate shot matches during tropical storm Isiais.” Acknowledging that this year’s golf was unique considering the conditions, Mr. Curanaj remarked that New York managed to split the seven points and maintain the one point lead going into the final day of singles. “On singles day there were 14 points on the line, NY shot out to an early lead owing to putts made by Sokol Selmani, Toni Dovolani, Tony Gjokaj and Mark Tushaj. Michigan was able to win 5 of the final 6 matches thanks to impressive performances by Zef Deda. Marko Gjolaj, Dennis Perkaj, Mark Berishaj and Mark Kalaj. The final result 14-14. As previous year’s winner, New York retained the Cup, in accordance with the rules. Christian Dedvukaj, Rookie of the Year, made a Cup clinching 7 foot putt on the 18th to win his match and retain the Cup. Each team has 4 wins, 4 losses and 2 ties, as the home team has yet to win on its own turf,” commented Mr. Curanaj. While there is much focus on the competition like at any sporting event, Mark Curanaj and his fellow golfers value the “camaraderie and respect displayed and earned” at the event as defining features of the first decade of the tournament. In response to my question about next year’s event, Mr. Curanaj said that the Cup will be contested at Whistling Straits, with future venues including some of the world’s finest gold resorts Pinehurst, Sea Island and Streamstrong. In terms of future events, the team coordinator said that though 2020 was cancelled due to Covid-related issues, an all-star team from this large group will pair together to compete against Albanians from Europe in Europe at some point in 2021 for the Inaugural Kastrioti Cup, guided by Florim Bajraktari.
For Mark Tushaj, such an event helps the community of golfers who love to participate and non-golfers who generate interest and are drawn to it, by reaching out to ask about it. “Aside from the 28 participants, 14 in each team, there are dozens of Albanians who would love to be part of it. It has really created a positive buzz in the community” To my question about sharing the excitement of the game now and in the future, Mr. Tushaj said that the hope is that “the event will continue into the next generation of young Albanian golfers. Perhaps we can develop a junior event or even a girl’s event for our youth.” He defined golf “as a great game that requires focus, independence and confidence, as well as athletic ability. The game of golf and this tournament would be a wonderful gift to give to our children.”
Gjon Sinishtaj, co-Captain of Michigan team, shared that same sentiment. I asked him to relate what he appreciates most about the game. Without hesitation, he answered ‘Friendship building!” and having a unique opportunity to meet with fellow Albanians that he would not have the chance of encountering in life. He said that he regards them as “brothers’ and is proud to be part of a unique brotherhood.
Noting the impact of the pandemic, Sokol Selmani, Captain of New York Team, explained that they had to make adjustments and the original location was moved from Whistling Straits to Turning Stone, where he added “the team had never won” in prior competitions. Despite the changes and the wearing of the masks indoors as required, Mr. Selmani said that the team did not allow that to affect the good mood of the event. Echoing the fellow golfers on both teams, captain Selmani underlined that when the round is over they shake hands and sit together cheering for their team in a respectful manner, and when everyone is done competing they go to dinner together where in typical fashion one tries to pay the bill before someone else gets to take care of it and, when the tournament ends they hug everyone while wishing each other good trip home. He made sure to credit Mark Curanaj, for making all the arrangements from flights to sleeping quarters, from tee time reservations to dinners, thus allowing the team to focus on golf. Indeed in the course of the interviews I observed that each one credited the other team member for their role in the event and in the team. In its tenth year, the Albanian Ryder Cup stayed in New York, but I hope the golf culture spreads throughout the community.
Below is the list of members: Team Michigan: Lou Lucaj – Captain Gjon Sinishtaj – Captain Luki Lucaj Luvigji Lucaj Gjon (John) Lucaj Kujtim Sinishtaj Mark Berishaj Marko Gjolaj Dennis Perkaj Nick Palushaj Zef Deda Anton Sinishtaj Frank Gjinaj Mark Kalaj
Team NY: Sokol Selmani – Captain Zef Gjelaj – Captain Mark Curanaj Martin Curanaj Pashk Berisha Simon Hajdaraj Florim Bajraktari Mark Tushaj Tony Gjokaj Shkelqim Kukaj Christian Dedvukaj Leon Gjoni Toni (Driton) Dovolani Paul Martini