Bowled Over by High Tech

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.

To throw a hook, the bowler is imparting two motions to the ball. He throws it straight toward the pins, but he also uses his wrist and fingers to impart a counterclockwise rotation. While the ball is in the layer of oil, it skids and travels in a straight line. When it exits the oil, the friction from the rotation causes it to grip the lane and hook left. The opposite of all this occurs for left-handed bowlers.

The ball itself was once a simple sphere of hard rubber or inexpensive plastic, with a round core of more dense material to bring it up to the prescribed weight of 16 pounds. Within that framework, bowlers have been fiddling with balls since the modern game began in the late 1800s.

Metal is not permitted in a bowling ball, but hustlers used to construct what was called a "dodo ball," drilling holes in one side and pouring in metal so that the ball would hook on its own. That often had unpleasant results -- for the bowler who was caught.

In the 1970s, professional bowler Don McCune got the bright idea of soaking balls overnight in methyl ethyl ketone or similar organic solvents to make the surface softer, allowing it to grip the lanes better. He had some success, but the PBA and ABC -- perhaps with visions of flash fires in motel rooms and kidney damage from toxic fumes -- banned the "soaker."

In recent years, however, bowling ball manufacturers have succeeded in duplicating those approaches legally.

They started with the core. Working with dense ceramics such as calcium carbonate or barium sulfate, ball designers such as Bill Wasserberger of Lake Forest, Ill.-based Brunswick Corp. could shrink the core while maintaining weight, helping the ball roll faster and more easily. More important, the smaller size allowed them to play with the core's shape.

Using sophisticated physics and supercomputers, Wasserberger and others have been able to design cores that make the ball roll as though it were lopsided, even though it is perfectly balanced. In effect, some balls can almost hook by themselves.

Some cores even induce a wobble in the ball's spin, exposing more fresh surface area to the oily lane and further increasing the hook. Wasserberger estimates that core design accounts for about a third of the improvement in ball performance.

The rest comes from the ball's surface, or coverstock. Beginning around 1990, manufacturers switched from hard polyurethane to combinations of plastics that are softer, emulating McCune's soaker balls. Bowlers commonly call these reactive resin balls because they react so strongly on the lanes.

More recently, the Wasserbergers of the industry have been incorporating fine particles of a secret substance into the coverstock, giving the ball a sandpaper-like quality. "That creates texture and helps create traction, especially in heavy oil," he said.

Professional bowlers now often stand on the extreme left-hand side of the lane, throw the ball all the way to the right-hand side and watch it hook back into the pocket. Some experts say, only half-jokingly, that they expect someday to see a ball turn completely around and come back at the bowler.

Ball technologies have certainly changed the economics of the game, Tenner said. Thirty years ago, a bowler would use one ball for everything. Today, a good league bowler carries four to six balls with a range of hook potentials, plus one hard-surfaced ball to use for spares. During a tournament such as the U.S. Open, a pro might use as many as 40 or 50 balls during the course of a week as lane conditions change.

Prices for the new balls can be $200 or more.

"The added expense of the new balls, and the fact that serious bowlers had to buy more of them, has discouraged many people from participating," Tenner said.

Despite these improvements in balls, the increasing scores "are primarily related to what is going on with lane conditions," Wasserberger said. "Changing lane conditions can change a bowler's average 50 to 60 pins per game. That's one of the biggest differences between now and 30 years ago. Back then, most lanes were hard. Now they are easy."

Although lane conditioners (mainly mixtures of mineral oils) were originally meant to protect the lanes, they are now used to manipulate scoring -- a change largely pushed by league players to inflate their scores. It was a request that bowling centers were only too happy to accommodate to boost the popularity of the sport.

For leagues, most bowling centers put a lot of oil in the middle of the first 30 feet or so of the lane and much less on the outside. Average bowlers will barely notice a difference, but a good bowler can easily take advantage by bowling in the correct part of the lane, right on the edge of the heavy oil.

If the bowler then throws the ball farther to the right, it hits the dry part of the lane sooner and hooks more than normal, making it back to the 1-3 pocket. If the bowler throws it to the left of the target, it stays in the oil longer and hooks less, again making it more likely to hit the pocket. In another golf analogy, it's like folding the green in a V-shape with the hole at the center.

"We're putting out a condition that the top 5% of our league bowlers can take advantage of," said Jim Crawford, manager of AMF El Dorado Bowl in Westchester. "Most of the rest of the bowlers don't know how to deal with it and don't really care."

The simplest way to lower scoring is to apply more oil to the lanes and apply it evenly across the entire surface. That's what the PBA will do in the U.S. Open. The balls don't hook as much, and bowlers' aim must be extremely accurate.

Moeller recalls when the U.S. Open was at Cal Bowl in 1999. "Between squads, a couple of my guys and I went out and threw a few balls where we normally bowl in league," he said. "The balls didn't hook at all."

Brett Wolfe, a rookie on the tour this year, used to average 235 to 240 in his leagues.

This season, his average on the tour has been less than 200. He said bowling on a league lane condition is "like playing golf on a pitch-and-putt course, while bowling on the tour is more like playing at Augusta or Muirfield."

So that's what I will be facing when qualifying begins today.

I've purchased a new Freak high-performance ball from Track Industries to cope with the heavy oil, along with the other five balls I will take. I have new shirts with my name on the back in 2-inch letters, according to PBA rules. Friends and family will be gathering to cheer me on.

My biggest fear is that they will be more like the crowd that gathers to watch a train wreck.

Bowling the U.S. Open

Times staff writer Thomas H. Maugh II will continue his reports on the 2003 Professional Bowlers Assn. U.S. Open in the Sports section.

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