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Game on: Lawn bowlers battle by the lake

on September 21, 2009

On most weekend mornings in September, Oakland residents turn Lake Merritt into their outdoor track, with packs of joggers and cyclists circumnavigating the sunlit lake. But a canopy of gray clouds chilled the air one recent Saturday, making the morning in the emptier-than-usual park feel like winter rather than late summer.

“This is the kind of day where our parents would tell us we have to come inside and play. But now that we’re the parents, we get to decide,” said Jerry Knott, 70, vice president of the Oakland Lawn Bowling Club, near Lake Merritt’s northern edge.

Even as raindrops fell intermittently throughout the morning, a hearty band of lawn bowlers wearing formal dress whites brightened up the park and played through the elements. Bay Area bragging rights were at stake as 24 players traveled from as far away as San Jose and Rossmoor to compete at the sport’s Pacific Intermountain Division men and women’s championships. “Pacific Intermountain Division” is the formal name for the 12 lawn bowling clubs from Vallejo to Santa Cruz. The players, mostly retirees in their 60s and 70s who know each other from years of friendly competition, each paid $15 to enter the two-day tournament.

“The winners walk away with all the money,” tournament organizer Peter Knopf said, with a good-natured laugh. “Which isn’t, actually, a lot.” The $35 prize pales in comparison to the prestige of calling yourself champion for the year.

Inside the clubhouse that has hosted Oakland’s lawn bowlers since 1926, Knopf directed bowlers to the American flag and led them through the Pledge of Allegiance. Near a case filled with plaques, trophies and photos dating back to the Roosevelt Administration (the Teddy Roosevelt administration), three wooden banners exhort players to demonstrate “good fellowship, good bowling and good sportsmanship.”

The Oakland Lawn Bowling Club opened in 1903, as Scots introduced the Bay Area to a sport they’d also brought to Canada, Australia and other parts of the British empire. Oakland’s club is the second oldest in Northern California; San Francisco founded its club in 1901. Lake Merritt became Oakland’s official home for lawn bowling with its own dedicated green in 1912. The pious Scots who started the club didn’t want to play on the Sabbath, but the game proved popular enough in the early 20th century that Oakland had a second bowling club for people willing to bowl on Sundays.

“There used to be waiting lists to get in here,” said Jerry Ridley, a retired Bechtel systems analyst and former club president who lives in the Oakland hills near Mills College. “Now there’s a chance this place could shut down someday with the decline of the sport. Our goal is to get more people in here.”

In addition to the challenge of attracting new bowlers, maintaining greens at Lake Merritt has proven more difficult in recent years. Recent City of Oakland cutbacks means fewer groundskeepers at public parks like Lake Merritt.

“They’ve had to lay off a lot of people,” Ridley said, adding that park facilities like bowling greens have suffered. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure this doesn’t turn into a weed patch.”

Lake Merritt’s bowling greens are not as pristine as those in retirement communities like Rossmoor, but the club still drew top bowlers for the weekend tournament. For the most part, a top lawn bowler relies on precision rather than power, which is why on any given day a crafty 75-year-old can triumph over a muscular teenager. Like bocce, Lake Merritt-style lawn bowling depends on accuracy. One crucial difference is lawn bowlers have to roll the bowl rather than toss it. In singles play, lawn bowlers take turns rolling four 3-pound balls, or bowls, toward a smaller white ball, the jack, that a player rolls out at the beginning of each round.

A mosaic from the Oakland Lawn Bowling Clubhouse harkens back to the sport's golden era.

A mosaic from the Oakland Lawn Bowling Clubhouse hearkens back to the sport’s golden era.

Teams can have anywhere from one to four players, but the goal remains the same: roll your bowls as close to the jack as possible. If you knock your opponents bowls away from the target, all the better. Players earn a point at the end of a round for each bowl placed closer to the jack than an opponent’s ball. The first player to 18 wins.

Some players prefer to roll the jack out as far as they can on the 120-foot green to test their opponent’s strength, while others rely on a shorter finesse game. The bowls themselves are full of tricks.

“If you hold the bowl one way, it’ll curve to the left. Turn it over, and it’ll curve to the right,” explained Bob Schwartz, a retired baker from Berkeley who was serving as a marker—that’s a referee—while recovering from hip surgery. In other words, most throws take a slightly circuitous path toward the target. A savvy player knows how to read the green, and one deft throw can change the whole round by knocking the jack to a new location.

As the Saturday tournament commenced, 11 first-round games unfolded on the club’s two greens. With players firing jacks and bowls in all different directions, the pace felt more brisk than leisurely. Conversations were brief and businesslike, revolving around the unexpectedly wet conditions.

“Slow greens today. I have to take my muscle builders,” said Sandy Souza, a retired controller who came from Rossmoor for the match. Souza squared off against Regina “Reggie” Benares, a former member of the U.S. Lawn Bowling national team who has bowled in countries from Malaysia to South Africa.

For most of the morning, the bowling greens were hushed as players concentrated on the games at hand. Knott, the club’s vice-president, proved to be the garrulous exception.

“Usually for a big game like this, there’s not a lot of talk, except for people like me. After the game, everyone’s pretty open,” said Knott, who lives in San Leandro but was born in West Oakland and worked for 35 years as a bread truck driver based at 53rd and Adeline in North Oakland.

Along with his dress whites, Knott was wearing a pink 49ers hat, on account of losing a Raiders-49ers pre-season bet with a fellow bowler. His first match began inauspiciously as he fell behind 11-3 to John Ogden, a San Jose bowler more than twenty years his junior. Down eight, Knott turned to a former Cal Bears football great for inspiration. “The bear does not quit and the bear does not die, that’s what Joe Kapp used to say,” Knott stressed as he dried bowls off for his next roll.

As Ogden prepared for his turn, Knott stayed loose by teasing Josh Burnoski, a teenaged bowler from San Francisco playing nearby, for liberally interpreting the all-white dress code to include loud light blue socks. Recruiting teenagers to play a game with a slower pace proves challenging, but Josh and his brother John will be competing at a national tournament in Long Beach next month.

“It can look boring at first if you just walk by, but I like to go for wicks” said John, using the term for hard shots that drive out another player’s bowl. During his first round game, he drowned out older players’ barbs by listening to rock music on his iPod.

“Those guys are getting pretty cocky,” Knott observed.

Knott’s banter apparently helped restore his aim. Once he started talking, he managed to close the 8-point deficit and tie the score. At 15-15, Knott paused to invoke a higher power with some of the Latin he learned more than half a century ago at Bishop O’Dowd High in southeast Oakland. “In nomine patrus, et filius…” he began to say while crossing himself, before trailing off into a smile and a laugh, a semiserious prayer that combined aspects of the lawn bowler’s reverence for the game, keen competitiveness and a sense of humor.

After he made the toss, Knott begged his bowl to gravitate to the jack. “Find a friend!” he shouted, looking a bit like Carlton Fisk in the 1975 World Series, squirming and attempting to direct the ball with body English. Knott’s gyrations apparently worked, allowing him to keep the score tied 16-16.

By this point, the other first-round matches had ended, but Ogden and Knott continued to battle it out. It came down to Ogden’s final toss, which curled up wide right of the mark. Knott won, 18-17, with Ogden congratulating him on the comeback and taking the loss in stride. “It’s the British attitude,” Ogden said. “You shake hands before the game, shake hands after, and applaud good shots when they happen.

Knott was equally gracious in victory. He deflected credit to Andres Benares, another bowler at the tournament who’d picked up the game after emigrating from Macao in the 1960s. “He used to come out here (to Lake Merritt) in the morning before work so he could teach me the game. He’d be out here eating his cereal, teaching me the game. He holds nothing back,” Knott said.

Other immigrants from Asia have joined Benares in the Bay Area lawn bowling circle, including some who speak virtually no English. Knott says he’s developed wonderful friendships playing this centuries-old Scottish game he learned in Oakland from a teacher who grew up in Macao.

“There’s no other game where I’ve met so many people from different places,” Knott said. “With all the problems in the world, it’s great to see all nationalities get away from those problems and treat each other well.”

Call the Oakland Lawn Bowling clubhouse at (510) 625-9937 for information about membership and lessons.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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