While surfing the World Wide Web recently, I came across a March 2007 Golf Digest Feature article by golfing great Jack Nicklaus and his “state of the game” thoughts about golf. Although many in the world of bowling may be tiring of the constant golf to bowling comparisons, while reading Nicklaus’ commentary I could not help but realize the similarities and challenges the two activities have in common. Just like the game of bowling has the bowling ball versus the bowling pins versus the bowling lane condition debates, golf has the golf ball versus the golf club versus the golf course debates.
However, the question and debate in my mind is should a sport follow technology and let the activity develop from those new findings or should a sport lead technology so the activity is enhanced and not damaged by those new findings?
Allowing a sport to evolve out of whatever technological advancements come about is a philosophy any five year old kid can administer. Leading and limiting technology so it is by and large beneficial to the sport takes historical perspective of the activity, knowledge the current activity, and extreme foresight of what might become of the activity.
“I’ve been thinking...”
Jack Nicklaus; “Removed from the competition, my life is very full. My business has never been more brisk, but I pay attention to the issues in golf. From a greater distance, I look at the game a bit differently and probably more accurately than when I was a competitor. Even though I don’t enjoy playing as much, I love the game, and I care about it. I’ve been thinking on a variety of the topics and issues in today’s game.”
In bowling we have had strong personalities like Bill Taylor, Len Nicholson, John Davis as well as great players like Brian Voss, Mark Roth, and Marshall Holman who have kept a discriminating eye on bowling throughout the years. These personalities have at times spoken out publicly because they also deeply care about the state of their game.
In the early 1980’s during the beginning of the urethane bowling ball days, the entire PBA Tournament Committee had the foresight of what might become when they unanimously voted to prohibit the use of these bowling balls on the PBA Tour. Their decision was overturned by the PBA Executive board, which was of course primarily made up of businessmen.
Like the PBA Tournament Committee, many of the warnings from these men in bowling were never heeded and many of their dire predictions have come true. Much like the game of golf should probably listen more to high level players such as Nicklaus and Palmer, maybe bowling should listen a little more closely to our sports people. After all they have been thinking, studying, and devoting their entire life to the game.
“The modern professional game...”
Jack Nicklaus; “The best golfers should be better today than the best golfers of yesterday. At the moment, I’m not sure that’s the case. I realize I’m an old fuddy-duddy, and that previous generations always say that their game was better. I guess I’d plead guilty—in part. But here’s the difference. The game in terms of equipment barely changed for 60 years. Then with the equipment revolution that began with metal clubheads in the ’80s and accelerated with dramatic ball technology in the late ’90s, the game changed radically.
The best players suddenly found themselves able to hit shots more easily and consistently, as well as pull off shots they never would have tried in the past. It made the game for elite players simpler and easier. As a result, I don’t care as much for today’s game as I did for the one played for most of my career. I like the old game of moving the ball both ways and using strategy with angles, and hitting all the clubs in the bag.”
How true the time-lines and thoughts Nicklaus states about golf are the same in bowling. The bowling ball was also essentially the same for almost 60 years! The equipment revolution started in the early 70’s with the advent of the soaker which launched the introduction of soft polyester and soft rubber bowling balls into the mix.
It was accelerated in 1980 with the introduction of the AMF Angle and urethane cover bowling balls. In 1991 the equipment revolution was shot to the moon with the advent of Reactive Resin™ additives into those urethane shells. Soon after came the widespread introduction of high differential cores creating this new phenomenon called track flare.
A few years later came the addition of particles added into the shell of the bowling ball which acted like metal spikes in motorcycle tires used in ice racing. The game of bowling changed radically.
Are the best bowlers today better than their predecessors? I am not so sure on a whole they are better, although they should be. With these new high tech balls, players suddenly found themselves able to throw shots with consistent and great amounts of backend hook not even the most talented bowlers were able to do before.
Power players began to find they were always able to hook the ball which eliminated the need for finesse. Lower revolution players suddenly had the power of the great Mark Roth with these new type bowling balls. The pocket became wider and pins began toppling over on pocket hits that would have not had any chance to strike before the advent of this new type bowling ball.
Like Nicklaus, bowling players like Brian Voss and Marshal Holman also state they do not care as much for today’s bowling game. Many would be surprised at the length of the “off the record” list that feel the same. The game they grew up with, learned to love and played during most of their careers required much more finesse and physical manipulation of the bowling ball. For them using different hand positions, ball speed changes, and leverage variations to combat the bowling variables was much more rewarding.
Today, a player’s first choice of adjustment is trying a different bowling ball which more often than not, works better than using a different physical attribute.
Before bowling's equipment revolution, PBA Hall of Famer and long time PBA ball driller Larry Lichstein said that then “it was easy to see who the great players were since everyone was basically using the same type ball.”
Jack Nicklaus; “My greatest concern, because I believe it has the most effect on the most parts of the game, is the golf ball. I’d very much like to see the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A institute at least a 10-percent rollback in the distance the golf ball travels. I know the ruling bodies are looking at limits on equipment, including possibly reducing the size of driver clubheads and eliminating square grooves, but that’s treating an effect more than a cause. The desired results from such moves could be taken care of by a rollback in the ball. In fact, there would be much less need to limit equipment innovations that help amateurs play if the ball were rolled back.”
Just like Nicklaus believes the golf ball has the greatest effect on most parts of the golf game, many in bowling feel the same about the bowling ball. The bowling ball hits the pins, rolls across the lane surface, and rolls across the oil pattern. We know the ruling bodies of bowling are looking into such things like lane conditions and have instituted Sport Bowling along with the PBA Experience league option. They are also looking at the pins, the kickbacks, the oils, the cleaners, and the lane surfaces.
Many however feel those are just treating an effect more than the cause and the desired results could also be taken care of by further restricting the bowling ball. The rollback comparison in bowling balls would be eliminating track flare (minimizing Differential Rg) and eliminating porous and particle coverstock bowling balls.
In fact, if the bowling ball was not so absorbent, internally dynamic, or responsive to minute differences in friction, there would be much less need to limit oil patterns or pins.
Jack Nicklaus; “I don’t think a rollback should restrict an elite player’s options in customizing the golf ball he or she would play. It’s OK with me for, say, a player with a low ball flight to get some help by using a model of ball with a dimple pattern that creates a higher launch, or a guy whose angle into the ball generates an excess of spin getting a ball that spins less. In other words, I wouldn’t want to see every player having to use the same exact “tournament ball” picked out of a jar on the first tee. As long as players could keep the ball characteristics that best suit their games, I honestly believe it would take them only a few rounds to completely adjust to a rolled-back ball that doesn’t fly quite as far.”
This simply applies to bowling balls as well. A rollback bowling ball specification does not need to be one for all. A specification that makes it easier for the ball to spin a little sooner or later (low Rg versus high Rg) and a coverstock specification that allows slight surface adjustments without excessively changing an oil pattern so fast could easily give different styles of play options while keeping the equipment everyone uses similar.
Jack Nicklaus; “Although my main problem with the modern golf ball is what it’s doing to the game at the highest level of competition, I still don’t believe in instituting two sets of equipment rules: one for the elite player, and another for everyone else. From a practical perspective, such a structure would be very difficult to administrate. Perhaps more important, the notion that the rules are the same no matter what the skill level is as old as golf. It might be an illusion—the difference between the equipment pros use and what’s best for amateurs is increasing all the time—but it would be dangerous to tinker with such a fundamental tradition."
Employing one set of equipment specifications has been a fundamental part of the game of golf’s mandate. Bowling however has tinkered with different specifications for different levels of play for many years.
The USBC has a hardness rule of 72 on the durometer scale while the PBA for many years had a hardness rule of 75. The PBA now follows the USBC 72 hardness rule. Interesting to note is that all bowling balls the manufactures made with regard to hardness followed the PBA specification.
Another difference between the PBA and the USBC for many years was the extra hole specification. While the USBC has a maximum diameter size of 1 1/4”, the PBA for many years followed an unlimited extra hole size. Like the hardness rule, the PBA now follows the extra hole rule of the USBC.
Before adopting the USBC specifications, it does make one wonder why the PBA would have a tighter tolerance in hardness but have a looser tolerance in the extra hole specification.
Although I would personally prefer more similarity in the game of bowling from the recreational player to the elite player, bowling has already tinkered with such specification differences. Having different specifications for different levels of play (sport versus recreation) might be considered, but I only envision one bowling entity capable of doing this and that is the PBA.
Jack Nicklaus; “I have faith in the USGA and the R&A to get this thing right, but they need some prodding. A generation has gotten away from them already.”
Not much to be added here towards the USBC other than, isn’t that the truth! The USBC is bowling's only accredited and recognized testing facility so whatever specifications they decide, the other worldly organizations and federations will follow.
As far as generations getting away from bowling, one only has to look at the many high level bowling events throughout the world, and especially in the USA. The overall age of the participants is astoundingly high.
Jack Nicklaus; “What’s ironic is that nobody benefited more from the technology revolution than I did. I continued to play credible golf well into my 50s in large part because advancements in the ball and high-tech drivers allowed me to keep my distance. That wouldn’t have happened in the era of persimmon heads, heavy steel shafts and soft balata covers—I would have lost so much distance off the tee that I would have stopped playing much sooner.
Even today, when I barely play, I realize that the challenge of hitting the ball solid and straight—especially with a driver—is not what it was. I can go weeks and even months without hitting a ball—that’s often the case—and then after a few driver shots on the range, I’m hitting the ball fairly straight and far. I’ll play and might not miss many fairways. If I’d had that kind of a layoff 20 years ago, it would have taken me a month to get my golf game back.”
While I am far from a Jack Nicklaus or Earl Anthony caliber, last month I played 4 games with a group of friends after not bowling for almost a year. Using a Hammer Pearl Big Blue, I averaged over 250 with no practice balls. It was sick. When I was playing a lot and sharp I could release it many different ways to combat the playing field variables. Because of not playing and being as dull as a butter knife, I still release it many different ways, albeit not on purpose. The sad part is today when I hit the pocket using these high tech balls, they all have a good chance of striking.
Jack Nicklaus; “So why do I think this is bad for the professional or competitive game? Because modern players don’t have to develop the skills they used to and are not as well-rounded as they should be.”
This one really only needs a “yea what he said!”
Jack Nicklaus; “But from what I see, the pro game has switched to where it’s about 80 percent power and 20 percent shotmaking. This is not an assault on the modern player. They’re playing the cards they were dealt, just like every generation before them. These guys are talented, and they work hard. They’re doing what works best with the equipment they’ve been given. But they don’t bend the ball very much because the modern golf ball is harder to curve and much easier to hit straight. They don’t have as many shots from the rough because square grooves allow them much more control from bad lies. They hit driver much harder because the ball goes so much straighter and because they’re not as worried about the rough, especially with a short iron or wedge in hand. Long-iron approach play has become almost a thing of the past."
Just replace “the modern golf ball is harder to curve and much easier to hit straight” with “the modern bowling ball is easier to curve and much harder to throw straight.” I guess that’s why most players of today need another relatively new term in bowling, a spare ball.
“Golf course design…” (Oil pattern design…)
Jack Nicklaus; “We have about 16,000 courses in the United States. Almost all of them are obsolete for tournament play. For them to become relevant, we need to roll back the ball about 40 yards. That or rebuild all the fairway bunkers at 300 yards. Which is what we’re doing, and it costs a fortune.
Instead of changing equipment, we’re changing golf courses. It’s great for my business. I’m making a living redoing my old courses. But the game should be able to go back to the classic courses just as they are. Why should we be changing all those golf courses? It’s ridiculous.”
This one is for the Lanespersons of the world. To quote the Foundation, “You don’t need to be a laneman to know there are problems; you just need to be a laneman to know how big the problems are.”
Luckily for bowling we don’t have to retool the lanes all over the world but just like most house patterns being used today, those oil patterns are now obsolete for tournament play. They once were not that much different.
Much like the USBC Sport Bowling and the PBA Experience league idea, we’re changing the course too much instead of changing the equipment.
For house patterns to become relevant again, the ball must not react to a minimal amount of oil as it does today. Three units of oil on the lane is no match for the balls of today. We could change the specification to ten units, until another breakthrough in ball technology makes that specification irrelevant. Then we could change it to seventeen units, until another technological breakthrough makes that specification irrelevant. I just wonder how long the “dog must keep chasing it's tail.”
Of course for companies that make and sell the chemicals that condition the lanes, the equipment revolution is great for their business. Stronger balls equal more oil needed on the lane, more oil equals more change in the condition, and more change equals more conditionings for any competition or bowling center.
For the competitive bowler however playing on non-blocked lane conditions, equipment becomes much more of a factor in their success or failure. This is the reason during my tenure as PBA Player Services Director we drilled an average of 6,700 bowling balls per year. This equipment factor will prove to be the biggest challenge for the PBA Experience league idea. Like the saying of today goes, “you can’t out bowl bad ball reaction”, so you either drill, or go home.
Of course for companies that make bowling balls, this is good for their business. Sport bowling players need a large arsenal to ensure competitiveness.
Jack Nicklaus; “Trying to build great courses today is more complicated than ever. I’ve decided it’s best to basically design for the enjoyment of the average golfer. That’s what works best for the owners, who are selling memberships and selling their land. I was once accused of designing courses that were too severe. A lot of that was because I was designing a lot of tournament courses. Creating a true challenge for the best professional players for one week of golf makes it too tough for the average player who is going to play it the rest of the year.”
Because of the highly responsive nature of today’s bowling balls, trying to build competitive oil patterns today is also more complicated than ever. This is the main reason proprietors all over the world began blocking their lanes for their weekly recreational customers in the first place.
By creating a definite oil line in the pattern, not only does this allow the weekly customers to stand in a consistent spot (the big dot) and allow them to play to the same area from week to week (the second arrow), it also does not require them to have the perfect ball setup to enjoy the game.
The issue to me has never been the blocked lanes on the league level. Those participants have worked all day at their job and the last thing most want to do is work hard again during their recreation time. The issue is bowling’s sanctioning body recognizes scoring achievements in this environment and rewards those high scores with gifts. This in turn legitimizes those playing conditions.
"The health of the game ..."
Jack Nicklaus; “I hope we’re not running people out of the game. As it has become an easier game to play for the pros, the trend toward more severe courses has made it harder for the amateur. In most cases, the farther the amateur is able to hit the ball, the farther the ball goes off line. The old average drive was in the 190-yard range, but now it’s more like 210 to 220. And on many of the newer courses, off line means searching for golf balls. It’s making the game slower, and a lot less fun."
Nicklaus’ observations of how the modern high tech golf equipment helps the golf professional much more than the amateur might be viewed as a slight contradiction for bowling. While the modern equipment does help the bowling professional greatly, it could be argued it helps the recreational player much more, at least on conditions that greatly guide the ball into the pocket.
Even Jeff Sluman, who is the best bowler on the PGA Tour and a standout youth bowling player, states “high-tech advancements have helped the average bowler a lot more than the average golfer.”
While I do think the PBA Experience idea is a good idea on the surface, I hope we are not running participants out of the game as well. It is quite clear that USBC’s Sport Bowling phase one was not a success. In fact, I predicted in its past 2:1 ratio structure it would become a failure. When the PBA Tour announced they were going to use the standard in 2001, I warned the PBA leaders as well to no avail. Sport Bowling 2:1 ratio parameters lasted three weeks on the PBA tour.
This is however where Nicklaus’ course comparison comes back full circle to bowling. From observing countless events all over the world, as oil patterns get flatter, the less skilled actually score worse with today’s high tech balls. Because of the highly responsive nature of today’s bowling balls, mistakes are magnified and spare leaves become more difficult, which make the less skilled bowler become confused and dejected.
The Steve Miller quote that always stuck in my mind was “the game of bowling must be understandable and palatable to the consumer.” The consumer here is not just the spectator, it’s also the participant. While in time the PBA Experience and USBC Sport Bowling might become understandable to the consumer, they must also become palatable to be a success.
Jack Nicklaus; “The game is more popular than ever among avid golfers with the income and leisure to play a lot, but most people have less free time than ever. The current generation of younger parents spends a lot more time supervising their kids than previous generations, and it means they find it harder to justify a weekend round of golf. Leaving for the course at 7 in the morning and coming back at 3 in the afternoon is a hard sell for a family man. But getting back in time for lunch wouldn’t be.
That’s why we should consider the possibility of making 12 holes a standard round. It might mean breaking up 18-hole facilities into three segments of six holes. Of course it would meet resistance, but eventually it would be accepted because it would make sense in people’s lives.”
Can we make a comparison to Nicklaus’ observations about leisure time and his proposes 12-hole round to 12-week leagues? You bet we can! Organized league play seasons have been way too long for most for a very long time. While short term leagues and some outside of the box organized play may take more efforts by the bowling proprietors, it is something that must be done to preserve and rejuvenate the league aspect of bowling.
Jack Nicklaus; “Those who say that my comments are intended to help my course-design business are wrong. As a designer, I benefit financially from more land used, more renovations and more penal features. As for people thinking I favor a rollback in equipment because I don’t want Tiger to break my record, going back to older-style equipment would help, not hurt, Tiger because his skill level would make a bigger difference. If we took equipment back today, he might win 30 majors instead of 20. I’m more interested in the game of golf than in my records. I did what I could do in my time, and it was the best I could do. Now I just want what’s best for the game.”
Like many of the aforementioned people in this article, they are past their prime in earnings, titles, and accolades. Now they just want what is best for the game.
Golf and bowling; our activities are closer than you may want to believe...or want to admit.
Jack Nicklaus excerpts reprinted from the March 2007 Golf Digest Jack Nicklaus article by Jamie Diaz "I've been thinking…"
Original Column at Bowling Digital