It’s bad­minton plus a clam­bake

Los Angeles Times - - Sports - CHRIS ERSK­INE chris.ersk­ine@latimes.com

That might be the best way to de­scribe lawn bowl­ing, ac­cord­ing to Chris Ersk­ine.

OK, what do you think of when I say “lawn bowl­ing”? Bag­pipes and daiquiris? The Duke of Beau­fort? I can barely con­jure up a vis­ual my­self. To me, lawn bowl­ing is like a forced mar­riage be­tween bad­minton and a clam­bake.

Ac­tu­ally, it is so much more — more or less. Even as we speak, the U.S. Open, the largest in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion in the nation, is tak­ing place right in our own back­yards — Long Beach, New­port, La­guna. Of course, if you bowled in my real back­yard, you’d kill three go­phers and a Pekingese. (Se­ri­ously, be my guest. In case I’m out, I’ll leave the equip­ment by the fire pit.)

But down on these verdant U.S. Open venues — flat as a pool ta­ble and grass short as a cadet’s hair­cut — there are no ex­cuses. Sure, the balls are pur­posely a lit­tle lop­sided. In lawn bowl­ing, as in pol­i­tics, noth­ing goes from here to there in a straight line. Rather, the ball is de­liv­ered like a wicked golf slice. Fig­ure about six feet of ba­nana curl for ev­ery 75 to 100 feet of dis­tance.

Here are some other things you should know be­fore you make lawn bowl­ing your life:

8 It is played pretty well any­where the Bri­tish ever plopped a flag, ex­cept the U.S., where it is still try­ing to find a se­ri­ous fol­low­ing.

8 Lawn bowl­ing is older than curl­ing, older than base­ball, and al­most older than the Magna Carta. 8 There are no refs. 8 There are no steroids — yet.

8 Bench-clear­ing brawls are fairly nonex­is­tent.

8 It is, de­spite it Gats­byesque im­age, sur­pris­ingly af­ford­able.

8 Wa­ger­ing is pro­hib­ited, though not un­heard of.

Hon­estly, I just made up that last one, but the rest is true. I’ve been study­ing this sport se­ri­ously for three or four hours now, in the lava sun of La­guna Woods, amid a bevy of Aus­tralians dressed like Pack­ers cheese­heads, New Zealan­ders who think they rule the sport and some hot­shot Amer­i­cans who think they one day might.

“We need to in­cor­po­rate the younger gen­er­a­tion, what I call the Xbox gen­er­a­tion,” says Char­lie Her­bert of New­port Beach, who has played for four years.

Her­bert, a stock­bro­ker and avid kite boarder, is one of those Mas­ter of the Uni­verse types. He has a rep­u­ta­tion out here as a very ag­gres­sive player — sort of the Jared Allen of lawn bowl­ing. I’m pretty sure he could kick my butt blind­folded.

“It’s re­ally a game of fi­nesse, not a game of power,” as­sures Howard Har­ris, the tour­na­ment di­rec­tor, a more re­laxed type (but only on the sur­face).

“It’s the sort of game where some­one comes out and says, ‘This is easy,’ and then gets beat by an 85- year-old woman,” Har­ris ex­plains.

Not want­ing to get beat by an 85-year-old woman, I take a les­son from Mert Isaac­man, who is chair­man of the U.S. Open, but still man­ages to take a few min­utes to tu­tor a new­comer dur­ing a lunch break.

With his help, I lay up a cou­ple of shots close to the bull’s-eye, which is ac­tu­ally a lit­tle golf-ball-sized thing called a “jack.” If, like me, you’re good at ac­tiv­i­ties re­quir­ing nerves of steel and a soft touch — bil­liards, wed­ding toasts, bank breakins — you’ll prob­a­bly be quite good at lawn bowl­ing.

Though the sport is vir­tu­ally in­vis­i­ble here, SoCal is ac­tu­ally a hot­bed of the game. Stretch­ing from San Diego to Cam­bria, the South­west Di­vi­sion is one of seven di­vi­sions in the U.S. and by far the largest. About half of all U.S. lawn bowlers re­side in the South­west, which is host­ing this week’s open (it ends Fri­day).

How cheap is this elit­ist-look­ing sport? For an­nual dues of $125 or so and a few bucks per out­ing, you can join one of the many bowl­ing clubs in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia ( www.swlawn­bowls.com has a list of clubs).

The game is hugely so­cial, biggest in Aus­tralia, prob­a­bly, but also pop­u­lar in Bri­tain, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand. Afi­ciona­dos say you can show up at any lawn bowl­ing fa­cil­ity around the world and be wel­comed warmly and in­vited to play. Try that at Au­gusta Na­tional. They’d carry you out of there in a pie box.

Tour­ney di­rec­tor Har­ris loves lawn bowl­ing, it’s al­most a blood re­la­tion­ship. He will talk your ear off about weights, curves, bi­ases and other strate­gies of the sport. Talk­ing to Har­ris about lawn bowl­ing is like talk­ing to Bill Belichick about cover 2 de­fenses. As with the sport of curl­ing, an off­shoot it in­spired, lawn bowl­ing can take a day to learn and a life­time to mas­ter.

Yet, one player here at La­guna Woods, Brett Nista, has been play­ing all of three months. He wound up on Isaac­man’s four-man squad when some­one had to drop out at the last minute.

“I was a sub and got lucky,” Nista says with a shrug.

If you can par­tic­i­pate in the U.S. Open of a sport af­ter only three months, is it re­ally a sport? Heck, is golf a sport? Is darts a sport? What about com­pet­i­tive eat­ing?

Who cares? As Gor­don Gekko, the orig­i­nal mas­ter of the uni­verse, would tell you, any­thing that re­quires nerves of steel can be a hell of a sport.

Mean­while, I got next. Es­capism is so un­der­rated.

USLBA US Presswire

FO­CUS: Lawn bowler Joe Re­gan is a study in con­cen­tra­tion. The ven­er­a­ble game’s U.S. Open is tak­ing place in the South­land through Fri­day.

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