Dressed in white from top to bottom, they bunched together in front of the small building in Hermosa Beach. The 50 or so men and women stood erect and recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
Few seemed to notice the noisy aerobics class that had convened less than 20 yards away in another building. Few flinched when the exercise instructor barked into a microphone and a roomful of young women started to jerk and jump and yell and clap to loud music.
Nothing, it seemed, could distract the mostly middle-aged and elderly men and women who gathered last Saturday morning to play a sport that, if 2,000 years of tradition holds, would welcome leg warmers and leotards about as much as artificial turf.
They had come to participate in the 19th annual Hermosa Beach Chamber of Commerce lawn bowling tournament at the city’s lawn bowling club. The club, which has its headquarters on Valley Drive next to Clark Stadium, was built in 1936 by the federal Works Project Administration (local legend has it that the mayor at the time was an avid lawn bowler).
Helen Stephen, the organization’s president, said lawn bowlers from 14 clubs from Santa Barbara to San Diego had signed up to compete in the tournament, with six members from each club going against the others clubs in daylong competition. The club typically hosts three large tournaments a year, Stephen said.
Like England, the country in which the genteel sport is believed to have originated, the Hermosa Beach Lawn Bowling Club has lost some of its glory. The paint on the benches that border the two greens is faded and peeling. One of the 120-foot-by-120-foot greens is overgrown with weeds because the club lacks the money to maintain it. The other, though usable, needs reseeding. And membership has dwindled from a high of 140 to 40 today.
“It’s gone down gradually,” Stephen said as she sat in the small clubhouse, its walls lined with the trophies and pennants its members have captured over the decades. “People seem to be moving out or away from the city. They’re moving to condominiums farther away or into mobile homes.”
Nevertheless, the club has its faithfuls. One is Ray Gustafson, its 80-year-old secretary. A member of the club since 1961, he spent the morning greeting entrants as they arrived, then stepped onto the green with the same equipment he has used for 49 years.
Gustafson explained that in lawn bowling, each player has four bowls, or balls, about the size of a softball and not perfectly round. The bowls are weighted unevenly and curve when they are rolled. A player earns points by clustering the bowls as close as possible to the jack, the small white bowl used as a target. His or her opponent attempts to knock the bowls out of contention.
“You’ve got to have good luck to win,” said Gustafson, who grew up in New Jersey in a home adjacent to a lawn bowling club and hence took up the sport.
And considerable skill, according to Nell Reid, an Australia resident who spends summers living with her daughter in Redondo Beach and playing at the club. “One day you think you’re great, and the next day you think you are a learner,” Reid said. “You never master the game.”
Reid didn’t play in Saturday’s tournament, but her enthusiasm for her teammates was strong. Sitting on the sidelines, she watched intently as the players rolled their bowls down the green. “This one is going to die,” she said as a bowl fell short of its target.
Neither Reid nor others could offer an explanation as to why the players always wear white clothes in tournaments. “It looks good,” Reid said.
Despite the impression that the sport is mostly for older folks, younger people are attracted to the game, they said. One such player is Kevin Simon, a 20-year-old UCLA student who has been lawn bowling since high school.
“It’s much harder than it looks, and it takes a lot of concentration and skill,” said Simon, a member of the Beverly Hills Lawn Bowling Club. “It’s a thrill to go up there and play well.”
Bill Shonborn, a member of the The Groves, an Irvine lawn bowling club, agreed. The 70-year-old retired firefighter said he began lawn bowling 14 years ago after spending years bowling indoors. “This was a natural follow-up to alley bowling,” Shonborn said. “And it’s more of a challenge. And you get fresh air and it’s not as noisy.”
‘More Fun’ Than Golf
“I used to be a golfer,” said Jo Smith, a member of the Long Beach Lawn Bowling Club who learned how to lawn bowl six years ago after she retired. “But this is much more fun, especially when you get older and you can’t hit the ball that far. And this game takes far more finesse.”
The team with the most finesse on Saturday, as it turned out, was Beverly Hills. Stephen said the team walked away with the main trophy as well as six individual trophies. As in past years, she said, there was no controversy and no complaints. The teams will return next year to compete again for the honor of keeping the main trophy for a year.