The U.S. Lawn Bowls Open: Who Knew?

I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. How can it be that lawn bowls not one of the most popular games played in the country?

OK, the name is kind of quirky – I’ll give you that. Why not call it lawn bowling? That would at least give people a head start on relating to the concept. That will also cut down on the confusion created by the fact that “bowls” is the name of the game, the equipment AND the action taken. As in “One bowls with his lawn bowls in lawn bowls”. But I digress.

Let’s get one thing straight right from the start. Lawn bowls is NOT bocce. Yes, it bears a family resemblance. But lumping them together is like saying that the Soapbox Derby and NASCAR racing are the same thing because both involve something with four tires and a steering wheel.

Bocce is typically played at picnics by people holding a beer in one hand and winging the ball as hard as they can with the other (being careful not to spill, of course). Like bocce, the game of lawn bowls is very simple to learn. Unlike bocce though, it is maddeningly difficult to perfect. Why? One word: Curve – or in lawn bowls lingo, “bias”.

The lawn bowls used in lawn bowls…oh the hell with it – the lawn bowling balls – are not exactly round. They are perfectly smooth and round in one direction, but slightly flattened in the other. This shifting of weight to one side allows you to curve your bowl around others. Bowlers always roll the ball on its smooth circumference, adjusting each roll to incorporate weight, bias, speed and aim.

The intention of all this rolling and curving is to get more of your bowls to travel 75 feet or more and stop closer to a small white target ball (called a “jack”) than your opponent can. Each bowler uses four bowls in each round (or “end”), meaning that by the end of each end (who came up with these terms, anyway?), there will be eight bowls tightly clustered around the jack. In team play, there can be as many as 18 bowls all trying to suck up to the jack. So the key to success lies in how skillfully you can negotiate your rolls through and around the scrum.

If you’re a fan of angles and lines, you’ll love this sport. Lawn bowls possesses the constantly shifting geometry of soccer or basketball, the linear imagination of golf, and the carom angles of pool, all wrapped up into one – and coming into play on almost every shot.

When everyone on both teams has finished rolling, a super-simple scoring system comes into play. The bowl resting closest to the jack scores one point. If the next closest bowl belongs to the same bowler or team, it’s another point. And so on until you get to a bowl that belongs to the opposite bowler or team – at which point the scoring stops for that end.

Points therefore accrue to just one team per end. It’s just a question of how many. A running point total is updated following each end, and in tournament competition a match consists of 18 ends.

Simple concept, yes? Keep in mind though, that for tournament players, playing on different greens – and even different lanes (“rinks”) upon those greens – presents different challenges, above and beyond the exponential number of jack and bowl combinations that they process during the course of a match.

Action at the 2010 Lawn Bowls U.S. OpenAnd of course, they actually have to have the hand-eye coordination to pull off the shots that they envision. All without spilling a drop of…no wait, that was bocce.

So when I set out to attend the 2010 Lawn Bowls U.S. Open, I expected to find a pretty tense environment, with all that pondering and shot-making going on. Certainly the word “shush” would come into play with regularity, delivered with harsh stare and pursed lips.

I also assumed that Newport Harbor Bowling Club, one of the host sites for the tournament, would be private. So when it took me more or less 20 uninterrupted steps to go from my car to a prime viewing seat on a greenside bench it gave me pause.

No reserved valet parking. No admission fee. No ID check. No jacketed personnel eyeing me suspiciously. No full-cavity body search in pursuit of a camera or cell phone. Hmmmm…what kind of exclusive, snooty sports environment is this?

The answer is the kind of “snooty” environment that appears dying to be infiltrated. One where everyone that I made eye contact with smiled warmly and asked if they could answer any questions for me.

These people are in serious need of snooty lessons – otherwise this sport is in grave danger of being labeled…Friendly.

Oops…too late. There’s no denying it – lawn bowls IS friendly. And inclusive. And very social in a relaxed, low-key way. In other words, the kind of environment that Americans seek out in droves to scratch their recreation itch. Over 25 million people play golf in this country, and only slightly fewer play tennis – and virtually all of them do so at least in part for the camaraderie and social aspects of the games.

So as a public service, I would like to introduce that world of people to lawn bowls:  World of people, this is lawn bowls; Lawn bowls, this is that world of people. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

To be continued in my next post…

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