"His focus and concentration were unreal. When he got into that zone, the other guys would recognize it and say, 'Well, I guess we are playing for second place again this week.'"
--Phantom Radio's Len Nicholson speaking of his lifelong friend Billy Hardwick
I spent much of my boyhood with my grandparents in San Mateo, CA. My grandfather bowled and watched professional bowling on TV, and that got me interested in bowling too. If you lived in San Mateo and loved bowling, you knew about Billy Hardwick.
Hardwick, born in 1941, was a young, local bowling legend who had already became one of the best bowlers in the world by the mid 1960's, and my grandfather and I were very excited when he made the televised finals of the first Firestone Tournament of Champions in 1965. He went on to win the title against Dick Weber and the $25,000 first prize. This sounded like otherworldly money to me, a boy from a working class family who had just turned twelve.
Hardwick was one of my favorite bowlers for a long time after that and went on to have a relatively short but absolutely stellar career that landed him #12 on the PBA top 50 list of all time. He retired with 17 national titles and won 7 of them in 1969 alone, was the first bowler to win the "triple crown" of the TOC, U.S. Open, and PBA National Championship, and still holds an all-time PBA record by averaging 271 for 8 games at the 1969 Japan Cup, which he accomplished throwing a rubber ball.
However, it was only after reading an article recently in bowl.com that I came to an even greater appreciation of how amazing Billy Hardwick's career was given the obstacles he had to overcome. For one thing, he sustained a severe childhood injury to the ring finger of his bowling hand that made it very inflexible and led him to win his first Bowler of the Year award bowling with his index and middle finger. After that, he was christened "the boy with the golden claw."
Hardwick also had rheumatoid arthritis early on that prevented him from straightening his arms and prompted his doctor to tell him he'd "be crippled by the age of 28." Ironically, it was in his 28th year that Hardwick won a record-setting 7 titles, a season's total second only to Mark Roth's 8 titles in 1978.
I also didn't know that when Hardwick first came out on tour in 1962 with an awkward style a Bowler's Journal article described as looking "like he's falling out of a tree," he didn't cash in his first 17 tournaments, and the great Don Carter finally admonished him to "Go home." He did until he was able to raise enough money to come back and with indomitable determination and ungodly accuracy start dominating the tour.
But after one of his children, Billy Jr., died suddenly in his crib, his first marriage dissolved, and his second wife gave birth to a baby who died two days later, Billy lost his competitive spirit. As he puts it, "At that point, who really gives a damn about bowling? People say they understand, but until you actually lose two children--including an infant--there is no way to describe what it was like. At the time, I was No. 1 in the world, and I said 'So what?' I just didn't care. You just check my records after that, because they're all zeros."
Well, actually, Hardwick did win another tournament seven years later and then lost the final match to Marshall Holman by only five pins in the Firestone Tournament of Champions the following week. For a brief moment, he had regained the all-consuming will to win that lifted him to the top of the bowling world years before. But after the Firestone, he never regained that spirit and quit not long after and, according to his son Chris Hardwick, hasn't bowled even recreationally for over 25 years. However, he is the proprietor of Billy Hardwick's All Star Lanes in Memphis, TN, and in an interview in 2005 said of himself, "Self-pity was my best friend. Now I wake up with a smile on my face."
You can read the entire bowl.com article here, and below is a reposting of the wonderful commercial he did for Miller High Life followed by his close match with Marshall Holman in the 1976 Firestone Tournament of Champions.