One typical house bowler's perilous leap into Sport leagues
By Gianmarc Manzione
In my 20 years of experience as a bowler of house shot leagues around the country, I quickly became accustomed to seeing a 200+ average next to my name on league standings sheets. I entered each night of league fully expecting to bowl something close to a 700 series, succeeding often enough that anything less became a source of disappointment that lingered in the back of my mind until the next week offered a shot at redemption.
A "typical house bowler" with virtually no experience on more challenging lane patterns, I was about to realize just how hilariously mistaken I was to interpret my 200+ average as a genuine reflection of my bowling abilities. It was easy to commit such an error in judgment; I recorded my first sanctioned 300 game and season-long 200 average as a 14-year-old youth league bowler, logged a certified 834 series in 2004, and collected a closet-full of trophies and rings along the way.
But as debate over technology's role as an inflationary influence on scores gathered more momentum in recent years, I heard more and more from bowling pundits that the 203 Tommy Jones might bowl on ESPN some Sunday afternoon was in no way comparable to the 203 I might bowl one night in my local mixed trios league. I was intrigued, and soon made the leap to USBC Sport Bowling leagues.
After watching my first-ever shot on a "sport" pattern sail embarrassingly right of my intended target and head straight for the 6-pin (I am a right-hander), I knew once and for all that those pundits were absolutely correct. I was in for the learning experience of my bowling life, and it would not be pretty.
One of the most common observations made by house shot bowlers who try their luck on sport patterns is that merely to miss their target by a single board could be cause for disaster. As much as I would love to pretend that missing my target by a single board was the problem, though, one of the first things I learned bowling on sport patterns was that I was habitually missing my target not by just a board or two but by at least a whole arrow. In all likelihood I had been doing so for years, a fact that had never registered with me as house shots guided even the most errant shot somewhere within range of the pocket.
Now when I missed my target to the left my ball did the unthinkable -- it missed the pocket to the left. Formerly my ball would obliterate the pocket despite my gross inaccuracy thanks to a trusty "hold" area in the middle of the lane. And when I missed my target to the right, well, I missed my target to the right instead of watching my ball bounce furiously off of a dry spot and, again, demolish the pocket with all the fury that today's high-tech equipment unleashes.
Never before had I been forced to muster such an acute intensity of concentration merely to convert a 3-pin spare as I was on patterns such as the Scorpion or the Shark. No longer could I depend on a "wall" to guide my ball back toward the pin for another effortless mark. And that was exactly the point: How many "effortless" shots had been rewarded in my 20 years of bowling on "house" conditions? How many single-pin spares had I converted without so much as a second's thought? The answer was "too many to count," and only now, bowling for the first time on patterns that rewarded only the most quality shot I could throw, did I fully appreciate the difference between a great shot and the wildly forgiving lane patterns on which I had bowled for so long.
Before long I watched that inflated average I once took for granted plunge to more realistic depths. I also watched my timing disintegrate along with my ego as I tensed up and squeezed at the release. I was aiming the ball at my target whereas I would simply let the ball go on less challenging shots, comforted by the knowledge that if the ball landed within 10 boards of my target good things would come. And I was throwing the ball much too hard for the ratio of oil that the so-called "animal" patterns offered, a habit developed through years of bowling on patterns that were not nearly as "flat" as the sport shots I now confronted.
If the architects of the USBC Sport Bowling program intended to cultivate a greater appreciation for just how good professional bowlers are, my experience suggests that they can consider that particular mission accomplished.
The ultimate irony of my experience as a "typical house bowler" in a sport-shot league is that for all the terrible shots I threw -- and there were many terrible shots -- those few genuinely great ones I threw each week meant more to me than so many years of honor scores on recreational lane patterns. Each strike or converted spare was, for the first time in many years, a reason to feel a sense of real achievement.
That sense of achievement was all the more gratifying because, unlike all those strikes I racked in house shot leagues, it came so infrequently. It was also always accompanied by one sobering and inescapable fact: if I wanted to see more from where that came from, I would have to work for it.