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LOW ROLLER : Area Bowler's Rewards Are Few Despite Striking Achievements

February 05, 1989|RICH TOSCHES | Times Staff Writer

Tish Johnson was bowling with friends a year ago when she slipped and fell, landing heavily on her left wrist and snapping one of the bones. This, of course, is no fun at all. But, for the average person, a temporarily immobilized left hand would be no more than an inconvenience.

Unfortunately for Johnson, she isn't the average woman. For starters, she is left-handed. This, obviously, meant no more bowling for several weeks. But after all, how many people are going to tear their hair out if you tell them they can't bowl for a few weeks? Many might bide their time with an alternative pastime, say, square dancing or Parcheesi tournaments.

But Johnson is a professional bowler. A broken bone in a bowler's bowling hand is not unlike a broken bone in the kicking foot of a field-goal kicker. Or a broken bone in the punching hand of a hockey player.

The good news for Johnson is that she recovered nicely and went on to her second-best year on the Ladies Professional Bowlers Tour, a ninth-place finish on the money list.

The bad news was that ninth place translated to just $30,635.

Which brings us to this conclusion: Bowling may sometimes be dangerous and seems to lack flair as a televised event, but at least it's not very lucrative.

Johnson, 26, the defending champion in the Canoga Park Classic, which begins today with qualifying matches at Canoga Park Bowl, joined the pro circuit in 1981. She turned pro after a basketball career at College of the Redwoods in Eureka came to a shrieking halt when she sustained a massive injury to her right knee during a game. The damage involved cartilage, tendons and ligaments.

Doctors discussed with Johnson the possibility that she might never walk properly again. When she mentioned basketball, they all but covered their mouths to muffle the laughter.

"I realized I'd never get to play ball again, not anything more than a game of HORSE where I don't have to move much or run," Johnson said. "But I loved sports so much that I had to turn to something. Within a few weeks of my surgery, I was thinking about bowling."

Not that she hadn't thought about bowling before. She was raised by bowling parents and her father, who managed a bowling center in Northern California, put a bowling ball in her hands when she was 2 and pointed her at the pins.

"It was his way of keeping me out of trouble while he was at work," Johnson said. "He figured I'd be OK if I had something to do."

Some non-bowlers might think it a bit unusual to put a 5-pound, rock-hard bowling ball into the tiny and clumsy hands of a 2-year-old girl in order to keep her out of trouble--and with good reason. More than once over the next few years, Johnson recalled, the cute little bowling bowl fell from her hands and landed on her cute little toes, triggering many minutes of not-so-cute wailing.

But from her earliest days at the bowling center, Johnson was hooked.

"I bowled all of my life," she said. "Even when I got involved heavily in other sports, including basketball, I always bowled. I'd leave basketball practice at college, go home and pick up my bowling balls and head to the bowling house. It was a routine for my whole life."

So, one might be led to think, the transition from successful amateur-league bowler to life on the professional bowling circuit was probably not a big deal at all for Johnson.

Right. It wasn't.

She won the first pro tournament she entered, in Miami, and has had no terrible years on the tour and very few terrible stretches during a season. She has won five career titles, finished fourth in 1987 on the money list and is currently 16th on the LPBT's all-time career earnings list.

That, of course, brings us back to the subject of money on the ladies' pro tour.

Can you say " dimes and nickels? "

Two years ago, when she finished fourth on the national money list, Johnson earned $34,320.

Her 16th-place on the all-time list computes to $128,130. In 8 years.

Having a sponsor--Charlie Kinstler, owner of Del Rio Lanes in Downey--helps quite a bit. So do a few endorsements here and there. She is currently paid to wear a certain brand of wristband. Johnson says that bowling pays the bills.

But Johnson, one of the best women bowlers in the country, has earned roughly $16,000 a year in prize money.

This knowledge makes Johnson and her contemporaries on tour so angry they could stick three fingers into a bowling ball without first having the holes drilled.

"We're all dying for some recognition," Johnson said. "Sometimes it really bothers us. At times I've gotten frustrated by it and thought about quitting. But we all think bigger purses are out there, maybe a few years down the road. We think TV might come to our rescue, especially cable TV. I think some people are starting to recognize our talents.

"Some fairly big money might be there for us in just a few years and I'd like to be around and at the top of my game when it happens.

"But first, I want to get through this season without breaking my wrist."

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