Thursday, September 8, 2016

New Hui Fen: Bowling's Rising Superstar

I haven’t published a new blogpost here in ages. It’s not that I’ve lost that loving feeling for elite level bowling. I love it as much as ever. But I confess to having lost enthusiasm for writing pieces about it that hardly anyone but me will read when I could be doing more constructive things with my time.

Until now that is. For something has happened that has me feeling so excited and joyful that I couldn’t stop myself from writing this post no matter how hard I tried. There is a new star in the bowling firmament, and it burns with a wondrous brightness unlike almost any other I’ve ever witnessed.

I grew up watching professional bowling on TV and, whenever I could, in person. As a boy, I idolized the immortals such as Dick Weber, Don Carter, Ray Bluth, Carmen Salvino, and Billy Hardwick. A little later, Dave Soutar and Don Johnson were my inspiration. Later still, Earl Anthony, Mark Roth, and Marshall Holman. Then along came Wayne Webb, Pete Weber, Walter Ray Williams, Norm Duke, Parker Bohn, and Robert Smith. And now there are Sean Rash, Tommy Jones, Bill O’Neill, Mike Fagan, Wes Malott, and the awe-inspiring Jason Belmonte, with hordes of tremendously talented younger players such as Dominic Barrett, EJ Tackett, and Jesper Svensson nipping at their heels.

But as you may have noticed, I’ve named only male bowlers despite the fact that I’ve also respected female greats such as Betty Morris, Tish Johnson, Lisa Wagner, Leanne Barrette Hulsenberg, Liz Johnson, and, of course, Kelly Kulick. Yet, I always had more respect for the top male bowlers and enjoyed watching them more than I did the ladies. Until four months ago.

Then I saw a young lady I’d never seen bowl before. She was a member of the Singapore national women’s bowling team that had come to the USA to compete in a few PWBA tournaments and to test their mettle against Kelly, Liz, Shannon, Danielle, Rocio, Clara, Diana, and many of the other best professional female bowlers this nation and the world had to offer.

One Tuesday afternoon last May, Team Singapore walked into my home house, Steve Cook’s Fireside Lanes just outside Sacramento, CA, while I was bowling in my senior league. They had arrived, I think, the day before to begin meticulous preparations for the PWBA Storm Sacramento Open commencing there later that week. They had their national coach and also Storm Pro Tour Consultant Jim Callahan with them as they powered through an extended warmup period of stretching, jumping jacks, and the like that I’d never seen other players go through to that degree if at all. It was immediately obvious that these young women approached the game with a special kind of refined dedication. They then began playing low ball, where the object is not to throw strikes but to hone accuracy by leaving as many pins on the deck and shooting as low a score as possible after throwing two balls each frame but without guttering. In low ball, a gutter ball counts as a strike, and the last thing you want to do is strike.

These young ladies all looked plenty capable. I had already seen Jazreel and Daphne Tan compete in tournaments on TV and in YouTube videos, and I was well aware of the Singapore team’s reputation for formidability in international competitions, but I hadn’t seen the other women on their team bowl before, or I hadn’t remembered seeing them.

It was difficult to tell how good they were when they were throwing plastic balls at ten pins and seven pins in low ball, so I had to wait till Friday to see them throwing for strikes in tournament play. And as soon as I saw one of them throw a ball, my jaw dropped. And with each successive ball she threw, it dropped more and more, and I felt an awed thrill I’d never felt watching any woman and very few men bowl before.

That bowler’s name was New Hui Fen.

Have you ever heard a music group that radically transformed your taste in music? I did many years ago when I saw the original Mahavishnu Orchestra open for Emerson, Lake & Palmer in a concert in San Francisco. Have you ever heard anyone speak who utterly changed your view of the world? That happened to me decades ago after I heard an Alan Watts lecture on the radio. And then there was that Ken Wilber book that transfigured the way I understood human consciousness.

Well, watching New Hui Fen had that magnitude of impact on me. Until then, I was most impressed by bowlers with scorching speed and ridiculously high rev rates. Now don’t get me wrong. The Belmos and Palermaas and Tacketts and Smiths and Svenssons still set my heart to racing. But there’s a disconnect between what they do on the lanes and what we mere mortals can do. No woman or older man I’ve ever seen can throw the ball like Osku. But New Hui Fen is different. She does something that is theoretically possible for many women and normal men to do to some degree that could significantly enhance their games without requiring prodigious strength and/or transcendent technique and without destroying their bodies.

I don’t really know how to describe what New does except to say that she has a kind of remarkable, relaxed fluidity and efficiency to her style that manages to generate effortless power that is more than adequate to the task of knocking down all ten pins. There are other women on the PWBA Tour who throw powerful balls, and controllable power to a point is a big plus at all levels of the game, but they do it with a noticeable degree of muscular effort. New Hui Fen is different. She looks like gravity is doing almost all of the work and she’s just along for the smoothest of rides. In Chinese Taoist philosophy, New’s game epitomizes a prized quality known as wu wei.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the beginning of this video should be worth a lot more than that. But what the whole video and other videos of her bowling reveal better than the most masterful use of words ever could is not just the exceptional efficacy of New’s physical game, but also the preternatural strength and equanimity of her mental one. Even when she makes a rare mistake, she looks completely unruffled and usually bounces right back with the right adjustment and with flawless execution on her next shot. This would be unusual and highly impressive in the most seasoned and successful of veterans. But New is only 24-years-old, and this, despite her extensive experience in international competition with Team Singapore, was her rookie season on the PWBA Tour.

And what a rookie season it was!

It auspiciously began at the Las Vegas Open where New made the group stepladder semifinal and narrowly missed the televised stepladder finals, finishing sixth overall.

New bowled her way into her first televised stepladder finals the following week in Rohnert Park, CA and won her first match, recorded in Las Vegas two weeks later, before narrowly succumbing to the eventual tournament champion in the next match. She finished third overall.

Then it was on to the Storm Sacramento Open where she, once again, qualified for the televised stepladder finals, recorded in Las Vegas the following week, and made the lanes look easy in her first match and for most of her second until a missed 2-8 conversion and solid effort from her outstanding opponent Shannon Pluhowsky prevented New from advancing to the title match. She finished third again and was the only righthander in the stepladder. Her teammate Cherie Tan won the title.

Then it was time for the prestigious USBC Queens tournament in Las Vegas featuring a Who’s Who of great female bowlers from all over the world, and New bowled her way to a very impressive seventh place finish among a huge and outstanding field of competitors via a double-elimination format. Her Singapore teammate Bernice Lim won the coveted title.

After that, and much to my disappointment, New and her teammates went back to Singapore and missed eight tournaments before returning for the U.S. Women’s Open in Addison, IL. Who knows how well she and they might have done had they remained in the States to compete in all the tournaments?

And if anyone thought that New fared so well in her other appearances because the lanes weren’t that hard and that her unusually powerful release gave her a sizable edge on easier conditions over her less powerful competitors, she proved them wrong by sitting near the top in the standings during most of qualifying and match play and even leading the stellar international field at times in match play on a brutally challenging oil pattern. She made the televised stepladder finals, qualifying third, and bowled a strong, close match against the perennially great Liz Johnson who went on to beat fellow Singaporean Shayna Ng and then Shannon Pluhowsky for her third consecutive U.S. Open title. New finished fourth in the most prestigious and difficult women’s tournament of the season.

After that, it was back to Singapore for three weeks before returning to the U.S. to compete in the single-elimination Smithfield PWBA Tour Championship. This tournament was open only to the season’s previous champions and top point earners who hadn’t won a title during the season, and New qualified on the basis of the accumulated points she earned from her previous tournaments even though she bowled in only five out of thirteen of them.

If you’re one of the handful (or fewer) of people reading this blogpost, you probably already know who won this third of the season’s three major titles. Here's how it all went down. In qualifying for and winning this prestigious tournament, New was crowned the PWBA Rookie of the Year, which is amazing given that she competed in only six of the season’s fourteen tournaments.

But beyond that, New Hui Fen served notice to the bowling world that she’s an up and coming superstar in the sport, and she corroborated the praises I’ve been tirelessly singing to my friends and bowling buddies ever since I first saw her compete.

And beyond even that, as I alluded to earlier, she’s transfigured my own approach to the game. While I’m an old man with a thumbless strikeball delivery and could never hope to physically throw the ball like New no matter how hard I worked at it, there are two qualities in her extraordinary game that I’ve taken to heart.

First of all, I’ve gone from trying to force and rev up the ball with muscular effort to relaxing my arm and hand and letting gravity and a smooth release do the work. And it’s been working fabulously the last few weeks in league. My accuracy and carry both have improved markedly, and I’m able to throw the ball just as fast or faster by relaxing than when I strained to throw it fast and rev it up.

Second, when I make mistakes or get a bad break, I visualize New’s relaxed, impassive face under the crushing pressure of competition and worldwide television exposure, and I strive to manifest that focused equanimity in myself instead of getting tense, impatient, or angry. This too has had a big, positive effect on my game. I call her relaxed, fluid physical game and concentrated impassivity being in a “New state of mind.” And I think that if more men and women were to closely watch New bowl and adapt what they see in her physical and mental game to their own games, they could benefit just as I have.

New says she hopes to return to the States next year to compete again, and I hope for this probably almost as much as she does. What’s more, I pray that she and the entire Singapore team can and will stay here for the whole season and compete in all the PWBA tournaments instead of in fewer than half of them. But no matter what she does, New Hui Fen has already enriched my bowling and, consequently, my life immeasurably, and I’m grateful for this and wish this sweet and amazingly talented young lady the very best with her bowling career and life.