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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Bowled Over by High Tech

Rolling a 300 game isn't what it used to be. Souped-up equipment and lane conditions have made perfection perfectly attainable.

January 28, 2003|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Bowling looks so easy on TV -- a 16-pound ball hurtles down the lane, makes a sharp hook into the pocket and sends pins flying.

Among those who have bothered to watch this sport, who hasn't leaned back and said: "I can do that."

This week, 119 amateurs will join 234 of the world's best professionals in the prestigious Professional Bowlers Assn. U.S. Open at Fountain Bowl in Orange County to see if they can.

And what makes them think they have the slightest chance? Two words: technology and oil.

Over the last decade, bowling balls have gone high-tech, with manufacturers using sophisticated physics to design balls that practically seek the pins and exotic plastic coatings that grip the lanes like high-performance tires on a NASCAR racer.

Meanwhile, bowling center managers have drastically changed the way they apply lane conditioner -- commonly called oil -- to the lanes, effectively funneling the ball into the strike pocket.

The changes have endowed modern players with abilities that seem almost superhuman compared with earlier generations. It has cheapened the game, in a sense, but also made it vastly more exciting and rewarding for the skilled amateur.

League scores have skyrocketed, perfect games are common, and everyone thinks he bowls like a pro -- including me, an out-of-shape, overweight, 59-year-old amateur. This week, I'll find out if that is an illusion.

"New technology has really changed the style of the game," says Edward Tenner of Princeton University, who studies how technological breakthroughs affect human activities. "Until recently, the traditional skill of bowling was learning how to convert spares" -- knocking down all the pins in two rolls -- which was necessary to have high scores.

"Now bowlers only want to go out and throw strikes, which is like going out in golf and trying to make a hole in one every time," said Tenner, author of the book "Why Things Bite Back" about technology's unintended consequences. "The whole strategy of being a proficient bowler has changed, and my impression is that bowling organizations are still trying to come to terms with this."

Not only strategy, but results. Consider: In the 1963-64 season, there were 4 million league bowlers and the American Bowling Congress (ABC) recorded 829 perfect 300 games (12 strikes in a row) and 45 series totaling 800 pins (out of a possible 900).

Last season, there were only 1.7 million league bowlers, but there were 44,363 perfect games -- a whopping increase of almost 5,300%. There were also 12,028 series of 800 or better -- nearly a 27,000% increase.

More remarkable, over the last three years, there have been five perfect 900 series -- three consecutive 300 games in a row (36 straight strikes) in one league session. Before 1999, there were none, or at least none that the ABC recognized.

Twenty years ago, Glenn Allison rolled a 900 series at La Habra 300 Bowl, but the ABC said the lane conditions were too easy and refused to acknowledge the feat. Experts now say that the conditions that night were more difficult than what a league bowler sees every evening today. I had two of those 300 games last year and one 800 series, of which I am very proud.

"The average bowler can get lucky on one pair of lanes for one game for one night" and shoot a 300, said Tom Moeller, general manager of Cal Bowl in Lakewood.

"It's just like in golf, where anybody can go out and shoot a hole in one," adds Mark Miller of the ABC. "But can they go out and shoot six under par?"

Can that everyday bowler average 210 or more? In increasing numbers, it turns out, they can.

"Perhaps it was too hard in the past," Miller said of bowling 300. "Everybody is getting better in every sport."

The technology is certainly getting better. Aluminum baseball bats allow college and high school players to become mini-Barry Bondses. A bigger "sweet spot" in tennis rackets allows players much better control of their shots. Titanium golf club heads and graphite shafts can add 20 to 30 yards to the average duffer's distance off the tee.

Nowhere have the changes been more dramatic than in the bowling ball.

First, let's explain the game. The bowling lane is 41 1/2 inches wide and 60 feet from the foul line to the headpin. It is made of wood or, more often now, plastic. Bowling centers place a thin layer of oil on the surface of at least part of the lane to minimize wear and tear.

Strikes are made most often by putting the ball in the "1-3 pocket," the space just to the right of the headpin. You can throw the ball straight at the pocket and get a strike, but it's not easy. Studies by the ABC have shown that the bowler must hit a target that is only 1 inch wide to strike with high reliability.

But if you can hook the ball so that it is entering the pocket at an angle of at least 6 degrees, the size of the target at least doubles. It takes more skill, but the rewards are much better.

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