The Friendliest Invisible Sport In America
…Continued from the previous post.
The very first thing I noticed about the 2010 Lawn Bowls U.S. Open was the smell. It smelled like golf – more specifically like a putting green first thing in the morning. Which was no coincidence, since the Newport Harbor Lawn Bowling Club’s entire playing area was one big painstakingly manicured putting green.
I liked the place immediately, even if it did evoke suppressed memories of 90-hour work weeks as a golf course GM. I managed to fight off the reflexive duck and cover response and find a bench from which to survey the scene.
I had been surprised to learn that the Newport Harbor Lawn Bowling Club was not a private facility. It is actually part of a larger, meticulously maintained public recreation facility in Corona del Mar, California. Open to anyone who wants to learn the game. That in a nutshell, encapsulates the vague public perception of the sport – for the small portion of the population that even holds a perception.
It’s commonly said that golf is a sport that you can play your whole life, and I don’t disagree. But the characteristics of golf that make this true are also found in spades in lawn bowls. Both sports are skill-based – but neither requires exceptional strength or agility in order to enjoy playing. Both are cerebral in nature, involving a strategic plan for play instead of merely athletic reaction. Both are played outside on some of the greenest grass to be found (and who among us doesn’t appreciate green grass?) And both are played in an environment of cordiality and mutual respect.
But here’s where there’s a departure: Golf costs a gajillion times more money (give or take) and takes at least five times longer to play.
So why is it that lawn bowls garners just a tiny fraction of the attention in America that it does in Australia, for example – where there are professional leagues and television coverage?
All of the potential reasons for why lawn bowls is more or less invisible as a sport in this country eventually come down to marketing – and the folks that love and support the sport are acutely aware of this. It comes through in the way they talk about the sport, and in the way that they want to share as much as they can with you about its merits.
One of the tournament officials that I had the pleasure of chatting with told me that lawn bowls suffers from the perception that it is played by “people primarily dressed in white suits sporting primarily white hair”. OK, you got me – that’s what I had thought as well.
Truth be told, the competitors that were spread out over the green’s 15 or so playing lanes (or “rinks”) did trend older. At first glance. But as I began to watch more closely, I couldn’t help notice that many were much closer to my own age – which is to say they were wicked young. Or so.
And upon further inspection, I realized that, especially in the case of the teams that had traveled here from elsewhere in the world, many of the bowlers not only were still attached to their original hair, but it was still its original color. One team in particular was young enough to be on the listening end of stories that begin with “When I was your age…”.
That team was comprised of Aaron Zangl and Tony Baer, who were there representing Hermosa Beach Lawn Bowling Club – literally just down the road from my home. While Aaron and Tony happened to be local, there were plenty of other folks there who had made a significantly longer trek to this event. Teams had come from Australia, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Canada. All places where people take up the game as young as 8 or 9 years of age and fall in love with it.
As I became absorbed in the action, I found myself almost involuntarily moving closer and closer to it. Seen from close range, the bowler’s affection for the game oozed from every match. In a display of fan-friendliness that sets an absolutely unattainable bar, I found that the competitors were happy to answer questions and interact in between “ends” (i.e. rounds of play) And sometimes in between shots! With a smile, no less, as well as an almost obligatory, “and if you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to ask”.
As one match after another reached its conclusion and the competitors repaired to the clubhouse patio for beers and laughs, one tightly contested match still remained. It was my Hermosa Beach homeboys, Aaron and Tony, locked in a very close battle with Ed Quo and Dan Christensen. Team Hermosa had been down big early, but had been gradually closing the gap coming down the stretch.
Entering the 18th and final end, they were down four points – a tough number to make up in one end, but certainly not impossible. Each shot became a potential make or break one, and as the only remaining match on the green, this one was drawing a lot of attention.
One such intrigued onlooker was bowler Chris Davis, who after taking a close-up look at the match first-hand, walked my way smiling and shaking his head. I asked for an impromptu analysis, and he was more than happy to provide it. In fact, he took a seat on the bench next to me and supplied nothing less than a strategic play-by-play for the remainder of the contest.
Chris had been bitten by the bug seven years earlier. At the time, he had been vaguely aware of the existence of a club near his home in Seattle, and was listening to an NPR segment on a completely different topic when it was mentioned on the air that this club was holding an Open House. He decided to check it out, and the rest is history.
Back out on the green, Team Hermosa finally succumbed to defeat, and as handshakes and congratulations were being extended, something dawned on me. That could be me out there.
Of all the events that I have attended and the sports that I have seen, this was the first one that called out to me as a participant – which is the highest level of Sports Fan there is.
After all, it is just 3.9 miles from the IGTS Tour’s Palatial World Headquarters to the Hermosa Beach Lawn Bowling Club…
Next Up: The USA Cycling Elite Track National Championships