The USBC Open Championships is one of the most exciting events of the year for anyone that gets the chance to participate. With its prestigious history, the stadium or convention center setting, the demanding lane pattern, and the fact that you only get one shot at it each year, it is easy to see why this tournament is held in such high regard by players across the country.

Just before we started team event, I told my teammates, “The first time I come to bowl this and don’t have butterflies in the pit of my stomach, I’ll know it is time to retire from the game.”

This year’s USBC Open Championships, held at the South Point Bowling Plaza in Las Vegas, Nevada, has been one of the most talked about events in recent memory. Whether it be the new average-based divisions, the inclusion of PBA members, the discontinuation of the live stream broadcasts, not releasing the lane patterns prior to the start of competition, or even the distance between the entrance of the building and the actual tournament facility, there are plenty of hot-button issues clouding the 2017 event.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with several established bowlers, all of whom have already taken their crack at winning the illustrious USBC eagle this year. As I pooled their thoughts, some trends emerged on what they saw and what they would have done differently if they could turn back the clock and bowl their events again.

Oil pattern / live stream broadcasts

The number one topic on everyone’s mind was the USBC’s decision to not release the oil pattern information to this year’s competitors. While the majority of the people I spoke with understand the reason this decision was made, some were not sure the tactic actually accomplished the mission at hand.

Related to the oil pattern decision was the decision to eliminate the live stream broadcasts. I thoroughly enjoyed the live stream events. They not only gave us a sneak peek at the conditions, but I believe that any chance you have to broadcast live bowling and draw in fans is a win for the industry. The theory behind removing the broadcasts this year was that watching the live streams gave an advantage to anyone that had not yet bowled, thus helping the teams that go later in the year gain knowledge on how to attack the pattern and on what type of equipment to bring.

I believe Matt Gasn summed it up perfectly when asked his opinion on removing the live stream feature for this year’s event. “Personally, I’m a little disappointed that they got rid of the live streaming. I really didn’t watch it to gain information, as my team has their own game plan regardless. I just liked being able to go watch and support friends who were bowling. I would like to see this come back in the future so people have the opportunity to watch some of their loved ones compete.”

As with any plan, keeping the patterns secret and eliminating the live streams has its flaws. The “hidden advantage” simply shifts now to a different set of bowlers. Whether this be residents of the Las Vegas area that can drive up and watch squads throughout the year, or bowling company staff members that talk amongst themselves and share information with only each other. No matter what steps are taken to prevent it, there is always going to be a notion that someone somewhere has a bit of inside knowledge that gives them an advantage.

Difficulty / scoring pace

In terms of the scoring condition, I do believe it is overwhelmingly agreed upon that team event this year is one of the most difficult patterns in recent memory.

Is this because no one has seen an actual pattern graph? Is this because the masses were not able to view any full live streams of the event before their trips? That is impossible to say, but what we can say is that they are very demanding this year.

“In terms of difficulty, I felt that this year was the trickiest team event pattern in the past few years and one of the easier doubles and singles pattern in the past few years,” explained Matt Gasn, who is currently tied for the lead in singles with his incredible 802 series. “Doubles and singles are both scoreable if played and broken down properly. Team event is very flat and very hard. There is no magic ball. Just great shot making.”

I second everything Matt said above, as my team—comprised of three lefthanders and two righthanders—struggled through team event, posting just a 2905 series. Yet, we managed to work together to put up some solid scores in singles and doubles.

TJ Schmidt, who bowled 855 during the doubles event in 2011, believes that the key to success in team this year is simple: “You can’t listen to everyone’s opinion about how to play the lanes. You must break down your pair for YOU and only battle YOUR pair of lanes. We should’ve stayed right longer. On the other hand, I heard high caliber bowlers tell me they should’ve moved in quicker on their pair. It is all about who your team is and how you manipulate the oil pattern.”

Echoing Gasn’s and Schmidt’s thoughts, former Jr. Team USA member David O’Sullivan told me that he felt team event was “the hardest I have seen them in the 10 years that I have bowled this event. The singles and doubles pattern seemed to play a little softer than team, but they certainly are not easy.”

As with any other year in this event, who you are bowling with and how you collectively decide to play the lanes plays a critical role in your success or failure. Mike Conn, another former Jr. Team USA member, hit the nail on the head when he said, “I feel that this year, more so than in years past, you must play both patterns as a team and not individually. I remember (in a past year) watching a team bowl 3700 and all five of them were playing different parts of the lane. There is almost no way that can possibly happen this year.”

Side events / practice sessions

While the USBC is not releasing pattern information to the public, there are a few ways for you to get some practice in once you get to Las Vegas. The Bowlers Journal event is held in the South Point Bowling Center and it is being conducted on this year’s singles and doubles pattern. The BTM Tournament is taking place at the Orleans Hotel and Casino just a few miles away.

If you are not interested in participating in one of the side events but would still like to get a feel for your swing, there is the option of a team practice session at South Point on the actual team event lane pattern. Our teams did not participate in the team practice this year, but we did hit up both the BTM and BJ events the day before and the morning of our team event.

As usual, when you are trying to replicate a lane pattern on a set of lanes different from where the actual tournament will be bowled, it is hard to really duplicate what you are going to see for the main event.

“We did do a team practice and it was not close,” Matt Gasn explained. “The team practice felt like a house shot that hooked a little more in the middle of the lane. The new lanes upstairs in the plaza are much tighter and play much harder. It’s still worth doing it for $20 a man per team just to get loose and practice on something with some hook in the middle of the lane. But, I wouldn’t try to make a game plan based off of what you see up there.”

This has been my feeling about previous team practices, as well. If you are heading into this practice session looking for an “end-all be-all” diagram on how to attack the lanes during the USBC team event, then you will be very disappointed. So many factors come into play during the practice session that likely will be different once you take the lanes for your actual team event. For example:

  • A good majority of teams do not shoot spares during the practice session. When you spend your allotted time on the practice lanes attempting to get lined up to strike, you lose focus on attempting to replicate the actual playing environment. Without plastic balls going down the lane with multiple cross-lane spare attempts being made while practicing, you will not get a true feel of how the lanes will transition. If your team simply throws strike shot after strike shot, you are in essence grooving in a line to the pocket and leaving yourself with a false sense of how the pattern will play.
  • The lane topography at the practice facility will never be exactly like that of the actual arena. Even if you have the exact same lane surface and use the exact same lane machine, the oil pattern will play differently simply based on the fact that the topography is not the same from one building to the next.
  • The nerves and human emotion of the situations are different. For arguments sake, let’s say that you were able to duplicate the precise lane pattern that you will be bowling on during your team event squad. What you are not able to duplicate are the feelings, nerves, butterflies, bright lights, and haunting thought in your head that this is your one shot to get it all right this year. Human emotion plays a large role in your ability to execute and repeat shots and—whether you want to admit it or not—the Open Championships event is quite an intimidating tournament.

All of that being said, you can still learn which zones are worth attacking and which are likely going to be avoided by bowling these side events. I personally did not use the same balls during singles and doubles that I was able to use at the Bowlers Journal event, though it was the same pattern. What I did do was learn what shapes and zones made sense to play and this did benefit me later when bowling my USBC squad.

Bowling ball choices

Therein lies another major issue in not releasing the pattern information to the public: what bowling balls should one bring?

In an era where matching up the right ball to the right pattern is essential, going out this year without all of the information needed to make an educated guess on what type of balls to bring is quite a conundrum. This problem becomes even more amplified when you do get out there and see just how different the two patterns actually play.

Personally, I did my best to not overthink the process, as there have been a few staples in my tournament bag over the last several USBC trips. I just went ahead and assumed that those same shapes would make sense again this year.

I never have much success at the USBC event with bowling balls that change direction too violently. If possible, I prefer balls that slow down on the back of the pattern rather than those that go sideways downlane. Give me a controllable, solid, pin-down ball with a little bit of surface and I will take my chances year after year.

Matt Gasn agreed with my thoughts. “I think the most common mistake that the bowlers make is taking the wrong equipment. A lot of bowlers think that when there is a lot of hook on the lane, they need to take a cleaner shiny ball that will skid farther down the lane and move left with it. This is the complete opposite of what you need to do. All this will do is make your ball reaction even more sporadic. When you miss right, it will stay right and when you miss left, it will skid, check, and go left.”

Gasn continued, “We bowled college events all the time where they didn’t release any of the pattern info. My biggest concern was just making sure I felt like I didn’t have a gap in the arsenal of balls I brought out with me. In college, we could only take five balls (and one of mine was plastic) to a lot of these events without knowing the pattern info. My college coach at RMU (Robert Morris University) would want us to bring a wide variety of balls and then we would adjust surfaces and hand positions when needed. I would take two balls with slower response covers—one pin-up and the other pin-down—and then do the same with two balls that had cleaner, faster response covers on them.”

Meanwhile, Mike Conn said, “In retrospect, I should’ve brought stronger balls. With no information on the actual pattern beforehand, all you could do to prepare was watch the short clips posted by the USBC staff of people that were bowling well. Looking at those clips, it seemed the pattern hooked more than they did when we actually bowled.”

Conn’s thoughts just reiterate the imperfect science that is the sport of bowling. Even after watching a few clips of live action and speaking with friends and colleagues that had bowled before, a bowler the caliber of Mr. Conn still wishes he would have brought or done something different during his trip.

Former Wichita State player and fellow lefthander Erick Pawlak felt the patterns played “a lot tighter than the past couple of years” and he found that he had to “play them a lot straighter and closer to the gutter this year.”

He went on to say, “They are very speed-sensitive and you need to have surface on your equipment to help take away the back end and let the ball roll sooner into the pattern.”

Closing thoughts

So there you have it. Our groups have already gone out and taken our chances at this year’s event and, like always, there were a number of things we would all do differently if given another chance. But, that’s the beauty of the USBC Open Championships. You have one chance to get it all right and, if you don’t, there’s always next year!

Chris Hester

About Chris Hester

Chris Hester is a lifelong competitive bowler from the Louisville, Kentucky area. He was a two-time All-American on the Morehead State University bowling team and he competes today in many of the top amateur events throughout the Midwest. Chris is currently the Staff Manager for Ebonite International, where he provides support to Ebonite's international amateur staff and collegiate programs.