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 "Bowling Execution"
by John Jowdy

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Tough Lane Conditions Slow Down Scoring and Shut Down Lefthanders

RENO, Nev.

 The mystique surrounding the American Bowling Congress' Masters Tournament continued at the National Bowling Stadium Jan. 15-19. Despite a poor economy and high airfares, 537 players paid their $400 entries fees and showed up to compete in the demanding double-elimination format tournament that began in 1951.

And once again, a dark horse Bryon Smith who had endured nine years and 193 tournaments without winning a national pro title won the Masters. More important, Smith won it in impressive fashion. On Saturday night, he defeated Walter Ray Williams, the man Smith considers the greatest bowler in history, in a battle of the tournament's only two remaining unbeaten players. And then in front of the live ESPN cameras on Sunday morning, Smith beat Williams again by a 236-220 margin to earn $100,000 of the $386,000 purse. "I had been disappointed with my career but today I proved I belonged out here," said Smith, a 29-year-old right-hander from Roseburg, Ore. "You put yourself in an elite crowd when you win a major championship." 

The Masters is indeed a major but many of its champions have not enjoyed major professional careers. Amateur Brett Wolfe won the Masters last year but failed to win a match this year despite being seeded into the match-game competition. History has not been kind at the professional level to other past winners like Mark Fahy, Neil Burton, Doug Myers or Lou Scalia to name only a few.

Winning the Masters is never easy because of the large fields and the double-elimination format. If you fall into the losers' bracket early, it becomes a test of stamina and true grit. It was especially tough this year because the ABC put down a tough shot that put a premium on accuracy that resulted in lower scores. Scoring conditions were so tough that a stunning 440 of the 536 player field failed to average 200 in the first 15 games. 

In addition, the ABC came up with an oil pattern that halted the lefthanders' domination of the Masters at the National Bowling Stadium. Three lefties  -Wolfe (2002), Parker Bohn III (2001) and Mike Aulby (1998 and 1995) - had won the four previous Masters contested in the National Bowling Stadium. In addition, southpaw Dave Davis won a PBA Senior Masters at the 78-lane center in 1995. Last year things got so out of hand, so to speak, that lefthanders finished 1-2-3 and 26 of the 64 finalists bowled with their left hands. But the lefties struggled this year and none came close to being a title contender. That was not true of so-called amateur bowlers, many with experience in league, mega-buck and international competition.. Of the eight players still remaining with a shot at making the four-man TV finals, four were amateurs. However, pros Smith, Walter Ray Williams and Norm Duke knocked out three of the amateurs with only Jason Williams making it to the TV show where he finished third.

The PBA decided to set up its arena-type setting on Saturday for the 90-minute live telecast on Sunday. Thus the PBA shut down lanes 1 through 28, which is where there is seating for about 2,000. That meant the final-day matches had to be moved to the high-side of the stadium where there are no seats. And that resulted in the spectators standing about eight deep behind the crucial matches Saturday night. One woman, who said she was a Reno taxpayer and helped pay for the Stadium, was not happy that there was no seating. "Coming here tonight was a waste of my time. It was great last year but terrible this couldn't see anything and I got tired of standing," she grumbled. The next day, about 800 showed up and sat in the portable bleachers the PBA had erected along the lanes. Meanwhile, most of the comfortable chair-back seating in the balcony went empty.

What a waste of a beautiful National Bowling Stadium. But then again, the City of Reno may be ready to waste one of its most valuable assets- The National Bowling Stadium. As I sat in my room at the Eldorado Hotel in downtown Reno, I could easily see the giant five-floor Stadium located just a block away. The lights spelling out "National Bowling Stadium" still were glowing, but gone were the color lights that followed the lines of the $50 million building that opened in 1995.

The Women's International Bowling Congress will lure about 75,000 bowlers to its National Championship Tournament at the Stadium this year and then the ABC will follow with about 75,000 contestants in 2004. But after that, there is a strong possibility that the lanes will be pulled out and the function of the building will become all-purpose. It could lose the name "National Bowling Stadium" and if that happens the ABC and WIBC may not be interested in signing another 15-year contract with the City of Reno for staging its National Tournaments here every third year after 2007. That also would be a shame because bowling has been good for Reno and Reno has been good to bowling. So good that the Tri-Properties in downtown Reno ( the Silver Legacy, Circus-Circus and Eldorado) have endorsed and helped sponsor many ABC and WIBC endeavors. Glenn Carano, executive director of marketing for the Silver Legacy, was on hand for the TV show and said, "We want the Masters back next year and we want to sign a contract extension with the ABC and WIBC. Even if we changed the interior of the Stadium, it will be a better bowling facility than ever," said the former quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Spoken like a former Super Bowl champion who knows his way around bowling. Ed Baur, the ABC's group executive for tournaments/communications/marketing, spent much of his time talking with Reno civic and business officials. You got the feeling that both the ABC and Reno may want the Masters to return to Reno and the Stadium next year. But after talking to Steve Miller, president and CEO of the PBA, I'm not so sure he would concur. Miller was not happy about the lack of spectators despite the free admission policy or the media exposure. But our conversation took place before the large turnouts on Saturday night and Sunday morning and the two color pictures and front-page story of Smith's victory appeared in Monday's Reno Gazette.

Chuck Pezzano, a veteran national known bowling columnist who has been involved in the game for almost 50 years, knows something about TV bowling shows and he was not crazy about the way the PBA/ESPN ignored the ABC's financial involvement when it came to the closing TV ceremonies. Pezzano pointed out that the ESPN announcer interviewed runner-up Walter Ray Williams rather than call up ABC President Jim Bevins to make the presentation of the ABC Championship Trophy to Smith. And it didn't help that Monday's USA Today didn't know how to spell ABC in its short note about Smith winning the Masters.

The pro bowling tour, but not the ABC nor Masters, also got a mention in Michael Hiestand's "Sports on TV" column in Monday morning's USA Today. Hiestand wrote under the Spice Rack subhead: "As Walter Ray Williams rolled a ball covered in "Odor Eater" logos on ESPN's pro bowling Sunday, analyst Randy Pedersen noted, "Some people call him Deadeye. I call him Cash Cow. Bowling however is about more than money." Not sure what all that means, maybe it's just a part of the mystique of the ABC Masters.