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Bowling ‘em over

by Brett Bull

The game of lawn bowls may appear straightforward — players in whites repeatedly roll 1.5-kg rounded plastic “bowls” over finely cut grass — but Japan’s male and female singles champions are taking decidedly different approaches to the World Singles Champion of Champions, set to begin in Ayr, Scotland, on Tuesday.

Buddy Ferrie, 48, a native of Pennsylvania participating in his first international tournament, will tackle the multistage event on a careful, step-by- step basis. “My goal is to get through the initial round robin,” said Ferrie during an interview one Saturday afternoon earlier this month. “Then if I get to the knockout round, my goal is to get as far as I can.”

Conversely, Yoko Goda, 61, a veteran of numerous overseas matches, including the 2005 Asian Championship Fours, in which she won the bronze medal, put down a bit of swagger typically found in more rugged games at a press conference in late June at the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club (YC&AC). “Since I started playing 10 years ago, it has been my dream to participate in this event,” she said. “It would be nice to see the Hinomaru [Japan's national flag] flying at center court. I will do my best to accomplish that.”

It will be a battle of the bowls, or “woods,” a reference to the former composition of the non-spherical objects, with the pair from Japan testing their skills against the best in the world during the eight-day championship — the showcase event for a sport that for hundreds of years has tested players’ ability to “read the green.”

The goal of the game, which dates back to Britain in the 13th century, is to roll a series of bowls across a 30-meter lawn so they end up as close as possible to a small white ball called a “jack.”

“I’ll roll a couple times tomorrow,” said Ferrie about his preparation. “But I am more concerned about my form than I am about how well I do here [at his home "green" at YC&AC], because it is a game of adjustments.”

Ferrie, who began playing after a knee injury two decades ago, says that the key is getting a feel for both length and direction, since the asymmetrical weighting of the bowls causes them to travel in an arc to whichever is their heavier side.

However, the velocity of the bowl also influences the degree to which its course bends, making the “speed” of the green very crucial, similar to golf. For example, on a fast green, the bowl has to be thrown wide because the bowler’s delivery will be relatively slow, which will cause its uneven center of gravity to curve its direction much more quickly than on a slower turf — a characteristic that will necessitate a straighter shot at the jack.

From end to end, the travel time generally varies between 8 to 15 seconds.

YC&AC’s bowling green is notoriously sluggish, a trait common in this part of the world. “Generally speaking, the greens in Asian countries are very heavy,” said Hirokazu Mori, secretary of the organization Bowls Japan, whose aim is to popularize the game throughout the nation.

“On the contrary, the greens in Australia and Scotland are very fast. So if the championships come to Malaysia, China or Japan — as we hope in the future — the players will have to compete on those greens under those conditions. That will be very interesting to the world of lawn bowls.”

For Ayr, players from the 24 nations scheduled to compete are required to check in before the tournament begins to allow for adequate practice on the green.

Though the game carries a genteel reputation, make no mistake, the championships’ organizer, World Bowls, is deadly serious about it being a sport. Rules include warnings to players about maintaining compliance with the World Bowls World Anti-Doping Agency, and that drug-testing could take place. Bathroom breaks, too, are tightly monitored.

With it not being unusual for many competitors to be around the age of retirement, or well beyond, Ferrie, who works for a real-estate company, is not intimidated by his relative lack of experience. Along with Goda, he qualified for the trip to Europe by winning the national singles championships in Hokkaido last year.

“In the final,” he says, “I defeated a 77-year-old, but the year before a 25-year-old won it.”

Goda believes that most crucial will be the players’ ability to maintain composure.

“In lawn bowls, your mental state affects your performance greatly,” she explained. “If you are angry or jittery, things will not work the way you want. It is a sport that really reflects your mental state at that time.”

Bowls Japan estimates the number of people who have bowled in Japan to be around 7,000 — a small figure compared to the hundreds of thousands who play in Australia and Britain. Yet officials are confident that the nation will be showcasing its best bowling talent.

“In team games, teamwork is very important for winning,” said Bowls Japan’s Mori, whose organization boasts 300 members at its 20 nationwide clubs. “But in singles games individual ability at bowls is most important. So the champions of singles games are the real number-one players.”

Ferrie is Japan’s second foreign representative to advance to the world singles championships. Two years ago, Australian David Cameron finished in 11th place. The American doesn’t feel any added pressure in not being Japanese. His first intention was to assure Japan that he was serious and would be up to the challenge.

“I figure life is short,” he said. “I have a chance to represent a country. You know, my wife is Japanese. My kids are Japanese and American. I am not Japanese but I’ve been working in Japan all my adult life. At first, I couldn’t believe that I won it. But now that I did, and I am able to do this, my first thought was, ‘Hell yeah — I gotta do this.’ ”

Brett Bull runs the online magazine The Tokyo Reporter (www.tokyoreporter.com).