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The Time of Their Lives

From shuffleboard to lawn bowling to horseshoes, seniors in Orange County find there's plenty to keep them busy. Some get hooked despite what they expect.


The day he first reached for a shuffleboard cue, five years ago when his wife and kids signed him up for a Senior Olympics tournament, Rocky Briggs suspected he'd reached the end of the fun-and-games line.

"Then I got whomped, about 140 to nothing," recalls Briggs, a retired Teamster, still chagrined. "Suddenly, I was looking at shuffleboard in a different way. I thought a bit, then I said to myself, 'Well, why not?' "

Briggs has since become president of the California Shuffleboard Assn.--his wife, Gigi, is the state secretary--and they play and promote shuffleboard as often as possible. Although registered membership is down drastically--from 20,000 to about 4,000 in the past 20 years--Orange County remains a hotbed of the game with 14 teams.

"I tell you, I love this game," Briggs says, a little incredulous yet. "I got hooked on it, despite everything I expected."

Advancing age doesn't have to strand anybody on the lonesome roadside of their athletic careers. There's an active or competitive outlet for everybody. What often gets in the way are old-and-feeble prejudices. Games such as shuffleboard, lawn bowling and horseshoes are sometimes unfairly stereotyped as the domain of . . . well . . . the old and feeble.

Granted, there aren't any youngsters on the lawn bowling team at Leisure World in Laguna Hills.

"But that doesn't have anything to do with lawn bowling, itself," emphasizes Virginia Marlar, a Leisure World resident who is president of the American Women's Lawn Bowling Assn. "It's because of Leisure World's age requirement for residents--you have to be 55 to live here--and people's attitudes. Even some of our residents stay away from lawn bowling because they think it will categorize them as old."

Lawn bowling's venerable image is of manicured greens, pressed white outfits and murmured conversations, of cantaloupe-sized balls--or bowls, as they're called--rolling silently atop the grass, occasionally clacking into one another. That's not exactly the reality during daily games at Leisure World, where loud outfits and good-natured trash talk tweak the game's stoic tradition.

"This is a game where you can express your feelings," says Marlar, a former tennis player, drawing animated agreement from four playing partners. "We dress in white for formal competitions and we are courteously quiet when someone is bowling, but there is lots of yelling and talking and really urging teammates to do their best."

Leisure World will play host to the U.S. national championships beginning Oct. 17.

"If you want to see some real lawn bowling, come on out," Marlar urges.

The object of lawn bowling is to roll a series of "bowls" from a mat placed on the lawn toward a white target ball, called a "jack." The idea is to get your bowls close to the jack and to knock away the bowls of your opponent. The game can be played individually or among teams. Players or teams get one point for every bowl that is closer to the jack than the closest bowl of the opponent.

The bowls are biased--one side heavier than the other--so they curve as they roll, enabling them to be directed around one another. There are forehand shots and backhand shots. Taking too wide a turn is called "taking too much grass." Not wide enough is "not enough grass." The speed of the bowl and the condition of the green must also be considered. Also, the jack ball can be bumped and moved, totally rearranging the scoring.

"It requires lots of practice, strategy and concentration," says Grace Blum, whose floppy sun hat is dotted with souvenir pins from various tournaments. "It's very competitive and lots of fun. It's a shame everybody is convinced it's only for old people. It would be great for families. They should teach it in school. I wish I had discovered it earlier."

It was the middle of the depression and Jerry Schneider was 13 when he achieved his first distinction pitching horseshoes--a much-ballyhooed challenge match against the reigning state champion of his native Indiana.

"Of course, I didn't beat him," Schneider acknowledges. "But I got 13 points off him."

Six decades later, Schneider, 72, is a 12-time California state champion--five times in open competition, seven times as a senior--and is nominated for the National Horseshoe Pitching Hall of Fame.

"I still pitch at the regulation 40-foot distance, although we're allowed to come down to 30 feet after we turn 70," says Schneider. "I don't have anything against moving down, it's just that I have a natural 40-foot pitch."

Not to mention a regulation-distance horseshoe pit cemented into the backyard of the Anaheim house he shares with his wife and two of his five children.

Horseshoes is not a game of strategy. The idea is to throw ringers. But the practice and focus required to throw ringers at the most competitive level results in a game of horseshoes that bears little resemblance to the one played at picnics. Schneider's current average is 65%.

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