Not your dad's lawn bowling

Hundreds converge on local greens for the annual U.S. Open of Lawn Bowls and demonstrate a high level of skill.

October 03, 2013|By Emily Foxhall
  • Mert Isaacman steps into a shot as he plays in the Men's Fours in the 2013 U.S. Open of Lawn Bowls Grand Finals at the Laguna Beach Lawn Bowling Club on Saturday.
Mert Isaacman steps into a shot as he plays in the Men's… (Don Leach, Coastline…)

California weather has long attracted out-of-state visitors looking to spend time outdoors. They flock to the golden coast to surf, bike and rock climb and, as it happens, "play bowls."

More than 300 players took to the greens last week for the U.S. Open of Lawn Bowls, an annual tournament for national and international players that ended Saturday at the Laguna Beach Lawn Bowling Club.

The only qualifications? Membership in a lawn bowling association and a small tournament fee.

This fall marks the fourth consecutive year that Orange County clubs have hosted the competition, and they plan to do so again next year.

"They thought that by doing this for five consecutive years we would eventually be able to market this game," said Mert Isaacman, chairman of the U.S. Open committee. "To a point, we have."

Many advocates of lawn bowling, or "bowls," as it is affectionately known, hope to grow the sport in America among a more varied and younger crowd. More typically, as in Orange County, it is played by retirees.


The week's intense competition was a change for what is otherwise a largely social sport in California, but it nonetheless demonstrated the attractive nuances of the focused game.

"Look how tight and how complicated that head is down there," said John MacDonald, who oversees the greens for the Newport Harbor Lawn Bowling Club, gesturing toward a match in Newport Beach on Sept. 27. "That's really pretty busy. That's really a sophisticated shot down there."

At first glance, the sport's aim seems simple. One wants to roll a "bowl," which resembles a small sphere that has been slightly stomped on, down a grassy strip so that it lands as close as possible to the "jack," a smaller, yellow ball positioned at the opposite end of the 120-foot playing area.

But a number of elements make this difficult. Environmental conditions constantly change. The wind, the length of the grass and the sunlight, for example, vary based on the time and location of play.

Then there is the game itself.

The resin bowls are "biased," meaning they have been weighted to one side.

As a result, a bowl cannot be thrown straight. More likely, a bowl rolls directly forward about two-thirds of the way, curves one way or another, wobbles and falls onto its side.

Anywhere between one and four players compete in a match. Each bowler is allotted accordingly a certain number of bowls to use, and shots are alternated among players.

Even if one does manage to roll the perfect shot, it could be ruined within moments. A bowl that lands right next to — or, as they say, "on top of" — the jack could be knocked away by the next player.

"There's all kinds of little nuances like that involved in the game," MacDonald said.

The constant focus and adjustment, players believe, should appeal to any age level. Men can compete equally against women, as can the old against the young — assuming more start to show up.

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