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It’s Throwing a Curve That Counts : Oxnard lawn-bowling club teaches skill and strategy of the quirky game.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It looks like a scene from a 19th century painting: men and women, dressed in white from head to toe, calmly rolling balls down a stretch of smooth grass.

But it’s the ‘90s, and this is lawn bowling. It happens every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at the Oxnard-Joslyn Lawn Bowls Club, the only one of its kind in Ventura County.

Located in Wilson Park, it’s an odd little outpost of civility that boasts a surprising number of mostly senior members: 97. And with their solid white attire, they get their share of stares.

“People walk through here and think, ‘What are those guys? Out of the state hospital?’ ” joked club member Amador Martinez.

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The club offers free lessons to anyone willing to don flat-soled shoes and brave a few hours in the sun. It takes about six lessons to get the hang of the sport and learn the all-important etiquette.

It looks deceptively simple: Roll a 3-pound ball down the turf, aiming for a smaller white ball at least 70 feet away. The idea is for the ball to roll to a stop as close as possible to the white ball, which is called the jack.

But here’s the tricky part. The ball isn’t quite round, and it’s weighted on one side. That means it doesn’t roll straight but in an arc.

“Once you get to playing it, it becomes quite involved,” Martinez said. “It’s a game of skill, finesse and strategy.”

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The real skill comes in trying to maneuver your ball close to the jack when other balls are in the way. For the first two years of play, you’re considered a novice.

Martinez took up the game six years ago after he retired. Now he hits the city-owned greens at least three times a week. It’s the same for other members, who say the game is a consuming passion as well as good, mild exercise. They frequently compete among themselves and against other clubs in Southern California.

Don’t expect any exuberant outbursts from the players. It’s all politely quiet; even the scoring involves hand signals. Last week during a club tournament an elderly gent in shorts and a straw hat rolled his ball down the grass. It kissed the white ball, then stopped inches away.

“Real good bowl, Ed,” came a subdued comment from the sidelines. In lawn bowling, a ball is a “bowl,” and when it nicks the white ball, it’s called a “toucher.”

Close is everything in this game. Players carry special unmarked tape measures and calipers to be absolutely sure whose ball is closest to the white ball.

The fact that the club appeals to the over-60 crowd isn’t unique. The sport draws mostly senior citizens elsewhere in this country--about 20,000 of them, according to Michael Ashton-Phillips, spokesman for the American Lawn Bowls Assn.

The first green on the West Coast was installed in San Francisco in 1899. Today the clubs in the country total 106, with 37 in Southern California. Oxnard’s club started in 1987 with about a dozen members. Membership blossomed and the club got a new clubhouse in 1995.

Newcomers, young and old, are welcome. They can use the club’s balls while they are learning, she said. Eventually they need to buy their own set of four, which averages less than $150.

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Marie Ecton of Oxnard was in it from nearly the start. “It seems like anyone who sees the game likes it,” she said.

BE THERE

Oxnard-Joslyn Lawn Bowls Club in Wilson Park, 350 North C St., Oxnard. Play begins at 9:30 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Free lessons by appointment. Annual membership is $82 for men over 60, $80 for women over 60 and an additional $25 for anyone under 60. (805) 385-8034.


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