I know that many eyes were riveted to the PGA Masters and Tiger Woods yesterday. But, hardcore bowling fan that I am, I was more interested in ESPN's bowling programs.
First was the PBA Experience Showdown held at the International Training and Research Center in Arlington, Tx. It featured the 2009-2010 PBA Tour season's five "animal pattern" champions--Norm Duke (Cheetah), Mike Devaney (Scorpion), Jack Jurek (Shark), Bill O'Neill (Chameleon), and Rhino Page (Viper)--competing against each other and amateur Kevin Reurer, a USBC Sport bowling league member who earned his way into the tournament through a special selection and competition process, in an unusual format in which all six players bowled two frames on each of the oil patterns for their single game score. After that, the players with the top two scores bowled a five frame match, each frame on a different oil pattern, for the championship. Rhino Page beat Bill O'Neill 108-104 for the championship and not-too-shabby $25,000 first prize.
Of course, there were the expected detractors in the PBA Forum. One commented: "That was the most boring bowling I have ever seen. The only one who acted like he wanted to be there was the amateur. Another gimmick. The Tour is over just show the seniors and be done with it.." Others agreed. And I admit that even I didn't find the unconventional format as engaging as a regular tournament, although I applaud the PBA for trying to draw attention to the PBA Experience leagues and to highlight the natures of the various "animal patterns" and the differences between them.
Yet, I wonder how well having each bowler cross the pairs bowling one frame on each pattern and then going back and doing it again after everyone else has bowled the first five frames the same way really helps the public to understand the differences between the patterns and appreciate the skills of the bowlers. It seems to me that one of the defining skills of elite professional bowlers is their ability to repeat good shots on a pattern they've figured out. But when they're moving to a different pattern each successive frame and they have to change their equipment, release, ball speed, and line on each one, there's little to no opportunity to showcase their ability to repeat. I blogged a similar complaint about the "PBA Dual Pattern Madness" of the Go RVing Match Play Championship in March. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed seeing how and how well each of the bowlers tackled the different patterns, and I'm glad they all went home with a paycheck. I wonder how ESPN's ratings for this show compared with their regular bowling telecasts.
Immediately after the men's bowling concluded, ESPN aired the NCAA Women's Bowling Championship match between #1 Nebraska and #3 Fairleigh Dickinson (FDU), and I liked it more than I expected. There were snide remarks in the PBA Forum about the women's weak balls and inappropriate congratulatory cheers and gestures, but I found the best-of-seven Baker format match exciting. Nebraska jumped to a 3-2 lead and looked like they were going to win it, but FDU rebounded and won the final and deciding game at the wire 209-174 to take the coveted national title. Click here to see video of Nebraska in last year's championship.
No, I didn't see anyone who dazzled me with her power or perfect style, but what did impress me was how well these young women performed under the immense pressure of team competition under the TV lights in a rhythm-busting Baker format. I saw a lot of challenging spare conversions and only one missed single pin spare over the entire seven games. I also saw many strikes on pocket hits when they were most desperately needed.
Watching this match on my big screen TV impressed upon me more than ever just how much more pressure there is in bowling team competition at this level than there is in singles competition. In singles competition, if you blow an easy spare or miss the pocket in a crucial situation, it hurts only you. But if you do it as part of a team vying for a national title, the pressure seems magnified countless times over. Those young ladies held up extremely well under all that pressure, which is as much of a tribute to the bowling discipline instilled in them by their coaches and by their experience in grueling competition as it to their raw talent.
However, it should be noted that not all of the best women's college teams participate in NCAA competition. In fact, many of the arguably best women's and men's college teams and individual bowlers aren't in the NCAA because of, as I understand it, the severe restrictions the NCAA places on its athletes. These teams, including perennial powerhouses Wichita State and Saginaw Valley, participate in USBC intercollegiate competition and will be going at it in the USBC Intercollegiate Championships kicking off later this week. I hope ESPN televises the finals of this competition as well.