Dick Folkins, 68, of Mission Viejo, a bona fide superstar and a living legend, is in his twilight years. He's sort of the Reggie Jackson of the lawn bowling set.
Folkins, "the quiet assassin," as some opponents have called him, has won practically every national and international match he has entered, and in most cases has won them a number of times.
He is the only bowler ever to win singles, doubles and triples in the same U.S. National Open Lawn Bowling tournament, a major contest that sometimes attracts top world bowlers. In fact, he did it twice in the 1950s, and so far has won 14 individual U.S Open titles.
"It seems I've won just about everything I've ever entered," Folkins said. "I'm still fairly sharp, but not nearly as much as when I won the gold at the World Bowls in England in 1972." That was his first overseas match, and he also served as skip (captain) of the American team.
He said he feels he was at his best in his 30s, but added, "I had to work and it was difficult keeping a good edge." He is a retired civil engineer.
Picked for U.S. Team
Lest you think he's ready for retirement from intense competition, Folkins was recently selected for a five-man American Lawn Bowling Assn. team that will compete in a September international match in Australia, one of the hotbeds of lawn bowling.
The sport is played by an estimated 1 million bowlers in 32 countries. Each player rolls four 3 1/2-pound balls, called bowls, on closely mown greens measuring 14 feet wide by 120 feet long. Points are scored by rolling a bowl closer to a white marker ball (called a jack) than the opponent's bowl. Scoring 18 points first is usually a winning score.
Although memories of past victories are still fresh in his mind, what Folkins talks about more these days, he said in an interview in his Casta del Sol home, is the problem of getting new and young players into lawn bowling.
"If you can imagine," he said in a quiet tone, "Australia has more than 300,000 players compared to the 5,000 in the United States, and many of the Australian players are young people who started playing before they got to their teens." Folkins started at age 8, but he says few players get an early start in the United States.
He blames media coverage of the sport for part of the recruitment problem.
"Every time the press would come out for some sort of story about lawn bowling," he complained, "they would always hunt up the oldest players, take their pictures and write about them, giving the impression they were typical of the players."
Folkins said lawn bowling is really a young man's game that older people can play. He said the tournaments sometimes last for a week, and only the strongest and youngest bowlers can take the grind.
Youths Prefer Surfing
"England just had a tournament for players under 25, and 770 bowlers competed," he said. Such promotions are necessary in the United States if lawn bowling is to survive in this country, he said. "We don't have a real promotional effort to get younger players."
Many private and most public lawn bowling clubs offer young players free instruction and use of the bowls and greens where matches are played.
Helen Stephen, president of the Hermosa Beach Lawn Bowling Club, acknowledged the problem. "We just cannot seem to get young people out. They would rather go to the beach and surf."
Keith Lance, an officer of the American Lawn Bowling Assn. and a highly regarded bowler, agreed with Folkins that lawn bowling is getting a bad rap because most people think only older men and women play the game.
"Many tournament players have a win-at-all-cost philosophy," Lance said, but he feels the intensity and drive at the matches might be invisible to spectators because not much emotion is shown in the playing of the game, which originated in England.
"But be assured, the competition is as tense as in any other sport," Lance said. "Most people who get a chance to watch lawn bowling usually are seeing club bowlers out to have a good time and be social. If the same people would watch tournament players, such as Folkins, they would see some really tough and exciting matches."
Because lawn bowling is played mainly on greens in public parks, public spending cuts since passage of Proposition 13 have dealt a hard blow to the sport, Lance said.
Greens Maintenance Cut
"When 13 passed, cities started cutting money for upkeep, and pretty soon some of the greens went to pot, membership started to fall and some clubs closed," Lance said. Since then, he said, lawn bowlers have had to raise money to pay for greens maintenance, and the majority of them now belong to clubs in retirement communities, such as Casta del Sol where Folkins bowls, and where membership is restricted to resident homeowners.
Starting young is the key to later success in lawn bowling, "and Folkins proves that without a shred of doubt," said Tom Mansfield, president of the American Lawn Bowling Assn., in a telephone interview from San Jose.
"I don't think there is a better person in the United States with as much history of success as Folkins as a singles player," Mansfield said.
There's no question as to why Folkins is a class lawn bowler, said fellow bowler Herb Eastland during a recent practice match in 100-degree heat at Casta del Sol. "He's had years and years and years of practice."
Stronghold of Region
Eastland, a retired newspaper account executive, and other retirees bowl at one of seven such complexes in Orange County, considered a stronghold of top players in Southern California.
Social bowling is enjoyable, Folkins said, "but the better the competition, the more I like it." He compared bowling to golf, pointing out that "it takes hours to play both games, but you have to concentrate all the time to keep that edge, even when you're just walking."
Rolling the ball "is like putting," Folkins said. "It's the touch. You have to have the touch."