PBA TECH TALK by Ted Thompson
BOWLING Magazine September 2001
Reprinted with permission from the USBC
Welcome to the first “PBA Tech Talk,” a new series of columns by Professional Bowlers Association Players Services Director Ted Thompson. PBA Tech Talk will feature some of the PBA’s top stars and their tools of the trade — their grips, preferred ball layouts and types of ball decisions they make to combat the wide variety of lane conditions and environments they encounter on the PBA Tour.
How the ‘Sarge Easter Grip’ helped Robert Smith become a PBA champion
Robert Smith has one of the most explosive physical games ever seen in bowling. Walking through a bowling center, it isn’t uncommon to hear someone say, “Wow, did you see that?” If you’ve been around the Professional Bowlers Association Tour very much, you know the chances are pretty good that someone has just watched Smith destroy another rack of pins like only he can. Smith, who packs 215 pounds of muscle on his 5-foot-11 frame, creates a revolutions-per-minute rate and an entry angle that most bowlers can’t even dream of.
Early in his bowling career, when bowling balls were nothing like they are today, weight blocks with very little flare potential and cover stocks that weren’t nearly as aggressive as today’s served Smith well. The rapid advancement in bowling ball technology that has helped so many people around the world bowl higher scores, however, began to turn Smith’s bowling career into a nightmare.
Considered by many to be a blossoming superstar when he came out on tour in 1998, Smith finally headed home to California in late 1999 after two less-than-satisfactory tour seasons to search for answers. When the 2000 PBA season began, Smith returned to the tour with a new weapon, a grip known as the “Sarge Easter Grip.”
The Sarge Easter Grip — named for one used by the late American Bowling Congress Hall of Famer in the 1950s — is a conventional span on the ring finger and a fingertip span on the middle finger. Trying the grip was ABC Hall of Famer Barry Asher’s idea. Asher, who was recruited to bowl with Easter when he was 11, saw a photo of Smith on a Vise Inserts promotional poster and noticed Smith’s hand wasn’t open as much as other players.
Asher thought using the Sarge Easter Grip might weaken Smith’s grip, giving him more control. Ironically, Asher said Easter used to throw a backup ball, so he tried the grip to get a bit of side turn on the ball and wound up learning to hook it. Asher, who threw a spinner as an 11-year-old, used the grip to learn to stay behind the ball. Using this type of grip will greatly decrease the effect of the ring finger in the release. You’re really getting all the power from the middle finger, with the ring finger along for the ride.
The impact of Smith’s grip change was quickly apparent. He came back in a big way to win the 2000 U.S. Open followed by the Flagship Open in the fall. With his power harnessed by his modified grip, Smith believes he’s on his way to filling all those lofty expectations.
What was the change all about? With a full fingertip grip on both fingers, Smith created an extreme amount of revolutions and axis rotation. He felt as if his old grip was only allowing him to throw it one way — maximum hit.
The type of roll that was once such a huge advantage was now too difficult to control. “The original idea behind the grip change was to significantly cut the rev rate down,” Smith said, only to learn in CATS (Computer Aided Tracking System) testing that his rev rate dropped only 20 rpms, from 560 to 540.
Storm Products technical representative Steve Kloempken said the original goal wasn’t achieved, but the net objective was accomplished. “Robert’s ‘Sarge Easter’ grip has affected only one thing, his axis rotation,” Kloempken said. “His axis tilt has stayed the same. However, Robert’s direction of roll is unquestionably more forward.”
On the PBA Tour, players face an infinite combination of ball reaction characteristics. Because of the different types of lane surfaces, amounts of oil, distances of oil, topography of individual lanes, temperature and humidity fluctuations players face on tour, they need to know when and how to use all their skills to compete at this highest of levels.
With the product line that most companies have today, a player can vary his/her reaction tremendously by using one “favorite layout” and drilling balls with different cover stock and/or weight block combination.
Smith’s benchmark drilling is a 6" pin from his positive axis point (PAP) with a strong mass bias and no extra hole. This layout places the pin over Smith’s middle finger and the center of gravity around the centerline of his grip. This layout cuts down on the flare potential of today’s highly dynamic bowling balls, giving him a much more controllable motion at the breakpoint as well as length.
On shorter oiled patterns, Smith will tweak the pin placement slightly toward the weaker side (6 1⁄4" from PAP) and use a ball that has less flare potential and weaker cover stock. For very long oil patterns, he will slightly strengthen the layout and often use a pin placement of 5 1⁄2" from his PAP. He will also select a ball with a more aggressive cover stock and higher flare potential core/weight block.
Technology and physical changes in the sport over the years have caused the end of many promising pro careers. To have a long and successful PBA career requires many skills. One of the most important is the ability to adapt to an ever-changing game.
Smith has proven he has the talent and mental toughness to adapt and become a champion. He spent part of the long summer break dominating the PBA Western Region, winning three titles in April alone. Only time will tell how many National titles are in his future. One thing’s for sure: he’s fun to watch. Bowling September 2001
More articles by Ted Thompson