As I mentioned last time, I started this article series to help bowlers who are just getting back into the sport after an extended break get up to speed on the modern game. With so many changes in our sport over the last several decades, I thought it would be helpful to lay out a few things that will help you get competitive—or at least bend the learning curve in your favor.
If you have been away from the sport for a decade or more, you will notice that scores have gone up—a lot. There are several reasons for this. Let’s take a look at some of them in detail below.
(Editor’s note: This article is the final installment of Ron’s Welcome Back to the Sport of Bowling series. To read the other articles in this series, please click the following links: Part 1, Part 2.)
The lane surface
If you are like me and you bowled with Fred Flintstone, you likely grew up bowling on wood lanes coated with polyurethane. While there are still many bowling centers around that have wood lanes, most lanes now are synthetic. In the wood lane days, bowlers used to look for the “track,” which was literally a groove worn into the polyurethane (or lacquer, if you really go back in time) created by thousands of balls thrown toward the pocket.
Today’s synthetic lanes are so hard and so tough that there really isn’t a track worn into the lane at all in most cases. With that hardness comes a totally different playing surface than you saw on wood lanes. The wood lanes had much more friction, especially in the worn track. Wood lanes literally had cracks between the boards that were sandwiched together where oil could seep, and synthetic lanes have no boards at all. The boards and other markings are printed on the surface. Synthetic lanes are made of the same material the entire length of the lane, whereas wood lanes were made of maple for the first part of the lane and pine for the last 45 feet or so. Maple was used in the heads because it is a much harder wood than pine and it could stand up better to being pounded by bowling balls.
Synthetic lanes are unbelievably tough. I have always said that I would love to have a car made out of whatever synthetic lanes are made of because door dings would be a thing of the past. You can drop a 16 pound ball from 10 feet in the air on a synthetic lane without damaging it. If you walk down the side of a wood lane and turn to look at the condition of the heads, it looks like the surface of a golf ball with all the dimples.
Not all synthetic lanes are created equal, though. There are two main brands of synthetic lanes: Brunswick’s Pro-Anvilane and AMF’s HPL (High Performance Lanes). Pro-Anvilane has the biggest share of the market and it is the hardest surface of the two. You can always recognize Pro-Anvilane by the three foot long markers on the 15th boards from the gutter 34 feet down the lane and again on the 10th boards from the gutter 40 feet down the lane. You will see the Pro-Anvilane most if you watch the PBA on TV. This is helpful because you can use the markers at 40 feet to judge what board the pros are using for their breakpoint.
Both brands of lanes have very distinctive colors and patterns for the boards themselves, so if you bowl on these lanes, walk up to the foul line and learn what board number is that color, or if it is outlined in the case of Pro-Anvilane. The HPL lanes use a different color pattern on the left side of the lane versus the right side of the lane, so be aware of that. The different colored boards will help you with targeting and hitting breakpoints, if you pay attention.
Although all synthetic lanes are much harder and have less friction than wood lanes, the HPL lane surface has the most friction of the two brands. The difference is very noticeable, especially on shorter or lower volume oil patterns. If you are bowling on HPL, you will likely need a ball that goes into a roll farther down the lane and stores some energy for the back part of the lane. Pro-Anvilane is just the opposite, and balls tend to skid much more on it with the same amount of oil.
Yes, they oiled the lanes back in the day, but the oils they are using today are much slicker and it stays put longer. There has been a “tug of war” between the bowling ball manufacturers and the oil manufacturers ever since reactive balls were introduced in the early 1990s. Reactive bowling balls soak up oil like a sponge, which of course removes it from the lane surface. The balls aren’t designed to soak up oil on purpose; that’s just a characteristic of reactive resin. As a result, the oil manufacturers have created oils that resist being peeled off by the balls, and the oil is much slicker. Since the oil is slicker, it can lose half of its volume and still protect the lane surface from too much friction.
With the oil holding up longer and being slicker, it helps scores stay higher for more games. As a matter of fact, once some oil has been depleted, the scoreability of the lanes can actually increase. It almost always helps to have slick to the inside and friction to the outside of your intended target line. This condition is created after enough balls have gone down the lane in the same general area to deplete some of the oil—causing the dry—and bowlers then move left chasing the oil, which leaves the dry to the right. That equals miss-room, and we call it opening up the lane.
In order to stay competitive, you will have to learn to chase the oil left, which opens up the lane. Opening up the lane means that with slick to your left and dry—or more friction—to the right, you can miss your target line and still stay in the pocket. A lot of old timers will try to increase the ball speed or move up on the approach to get the ball to hold its line when the lane starts hooking. Both are a bad idea in the modern game. If you stay in the dry part of the lane and try to increase your speed, you will be setting yourself up for a bad under/over ball reaction. That means that if you miss a little left and go through the full volume of oil, the ball won’t hook enough and could even leave a washout, and if you miss a little right into the dry, the ball will over-hook into the nose of the headpin. Moving up on the approach will actually make most people throw the ball slower, which will cause the ball to hook even more on the depleted oil. Bowlers who did this years ago had the idea that moving up on the approach actually shortened the lane. There are proper times to move up and back on the approach, but this is not one of them.
One skill you will have to learn to be competitive in the modern era of bowling is throwing the ball away from you. That means being able to throw the ball toward the gutter from, for example, the third arrow and allowing it to hook back. The conditions of yesteryear never saw anywhere near the angles the most competitive bowlers have to play today. Believe me, it doesn’t come naturally to throw the ball away from you, so you have to practice it a lot.
What about the lefties?
I have coached more than my share of lefthanded bowlers in the PBA Regional program and on the PBA National Tour. I understand what happens on the left side of the lane much more than most. Lefthanders today live in a “feast or famine” world when it comes to bowling. There aren’t enough lefthanders to change the oil condition very much, so the condition they start with is often very close to the condition they end with. There is an exception to this, though, which I will cover later. If the oil pattern is relatively easy and high scoring on the left side, then the lefties will be happy for the whole block of games. If the left side is difficult and low scoring, then most of the lefthanded bowlers will be going home with empty pockets. The conditions I see hardest for the left is too much oil and out-of-bounds left of the five board. The vast majority of lefthanded bowlers have not developed high rev rates like the righthanded bowlers. Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, lefthanded bowlers haven’t needed high rev rates like righthanded bowlers, so they didn’t evolve in that manner.
When the oil patterns are long and slick, or simply high volume, the lefties have a very hard time getting their ball to read the lane. This will mean low scores for the whole day. If the same condition exists on the right side of the lane, the scores will start out low, but start creeping up with each game as the large number of righthanded bowlers deplete the oil in one spot. If you are lefthanded, you will likely find that you need very early rolling balls with lots of surface in your bag for sport shot tournaments. Lefthanded bowlers have always relied heavily on the oil to their right for hold, but the oil these days is so slick that the hold can sometimes become no hook at all. You need enough surface to get the ball to read the slick part of the lane to your right or you will be living in under/over jail. It will also be helpful if you can learn to increase your rev rate, if yours happens to currently be on the low side.
The exception I mentioned earlier about the left side of the lane changing happens a lot on the PBA Tour, but not for the better. Even though the PBA Tour has the slickest lane conditions around, the oil gets depleted at an amazing rate. Nearly every righthanded player is high-revving and throwing balls right off the drill press. This removes oil like a vacuum cleaner. In many cases, the last half of an eight game block is actually bowled on the left side of the lane by the righthanded bowlers. They will lay the ball down anywhere from the left side’s 15 board to the left side’s 2 board and throw it out to the right side of the lane at the breakpoint. The totally removes the head oil on the left side of the lane for at least the first five feet, yet there may be an ocean of oil past that point. This does not create a very playable condition.
Today’s extremely expensive high-tech oiling machines can put the oil down in patterns much like an inkjet printer can print a picture on a piece of paper just by moving the print head back and forth. I would say that the oil pattern affects the scoreability of the lane more than any other element in our sport. The guy that designs the oil pattern can make a 200 average bowler average 220 or 180. If you are returning after many years, you are most likely going to be bowling on the 220 patterns. That means you’ll be bowling on what we call “house shots.” House shots have what I call a river of oil down the middle and very little oil outside of the 10 board. The 180 average oil patterns are much flatter in their profile and are usually called “sport shots.”
The thing that throws off the returning bowler is the extreme wet/dry of the house shot. For as long as there has been oil applied to lanes, bowlers have learned to find an oil line and play down it. The problem is that the oil line on a modern house shot is so extreme. When you miss your target line to the inside, the ball under-hooks, and when you miss the target line to the outside, the ball over-hooks. Since a lot of returning bowlers will be down on rev rate, they are forced to move into the dry part of the lane. The problem with that is that you now have dry lane on both sides of your target line, which leaves no room for error. You are not able to take advantage of what is supposed to be an easy oil pattern with lots of miss-room.
The way the house shot is supposed to work is the dry outside hooks the ball into the pocket for you when you miss to the outside and the river of oil is supposed to skid the ball into the pocket when you miss to the inside. For many bowlers, it just doesn’t seem to work out that way.
To be competitive on the modern house shot, I suggest the returning bowler try using the Abralon pads we covered in Part 2 of this series to add more surface to the ball. The idea is to add just enough surface so the ball will “read” or grip the oily part of the lane enough to strike. Then, try moving your feet a couple of boards left and your target a board or two right (for righthanded bowlers; reverse if lefthanded). If you get the surface just right, the ball will bleed off some axis rotation (burn up) if you miss right, keeping it from over-hooking. If you happen to miss left, the new coarser surface will be able to grab through the oil, hook into the pocket, and even carry.
If your natural ball roll is pretty much up the back with less than 45 degrees of axis rotation, you may need to learn how to increase your axis rotation. Unless your rev rate is pretty high, you will have a hard time creating any area on the lane with only 30 degrees of axis rotation. That small amount of axis rotation will force you to play too square with the lane and keep you in under/over jail.
If your natural ball roll is closer to 90 degrees of axis rotation and your rev rate isn’t too high, then you will likely be fine, but you will require even more surface and an earlier rolling ball than the 30 degree bowler. 90 degrees in the heavy river of oil without tuning the ball with more surface will likely see it slide all the way to the headpin. 90 degrees in the dry will make the ball go sideways, unless the rev rate is very low. More surface and/or an earlier rolling ball will burn off half of the axis rotation before the ball gets to the breakpoint. If you can make that happen, the razor blade you have been bowling on will turn into a four-lane highway.
If you are a returning bowler who wants to jump into the deep end of the pool and bowl on sport shots, you will be challenged by a totally different basket of problems. I have worked with enough returning bowlers who were competitive back in the day to have a good idea of what those challenges will be. Surprisingly to a lot of people, the formerly competitive bowler will have no problem with the accuracy or shot repetition required to bowl well on sport shots. That’s usually the hardest part to current bowlers.
The bowlers of yesteryear never had anywhere near the area we have today on most oil patterns, so they learned to be accurate and repeat shots. The four biggest challenges for returning bowlers looking to bowl on sport shots, in no particular order, are:
- the release,
- surface changes,
- the variety of available bowling balls and—to a lesser extent—layouts, and
- lane play.
The release is a problem because the bowlers from way back usually don’t have the rev rates of today’s bowlers. Getting the rev rate up—or at least coming up with an effective ball roll—requires the most work, and more than likely it will require help from a good coach.
The best advice I can give without actually working with an individual is to tighten the thumbhole, relax the hand, and use less grip pressure. This can be done with tape or with a product like Ron C’s Magic Carpet.
The second thing I would suggest is to make sure you are not bowling with an open wrist at the release point. The wrist needs to be pretty straight when the ball leaves the thumb. If the wrist is open, the ball will miss the fingers and the rev rate will be very low. DO NOT look at YouTube videos of how the pros release the ball with their very active wrist action and try to copy them. I have seen more bowlers lose revs trying to copy those videos than I can count. Young bowlers take to those releases quite easily, but not most of us old codgers. Walter Ray Williams, Jr. has one of the lowest rev rates on the PBA Tour and he is still competitive with the kids. He has been bowling so long that he was likely already bowling on the tour when you quit bowling all those years ago.
Bowlers from 20 years ago who do have fairly high rev rates had a “grip it and rip it” attitude toward the release, and that wasn’t so bad with less slick oil and the first urethane balls. To be competitive in the modern era on sport shots, the rev rate needs to be higher, but the ball needs to come off the hand smoothly and on a flat trajectory. Releasing the ball late and hitting up on it—or, “lifting” it, as we used to call it—will cause under/over ball reaction these days.
I am sure by now you have seen a common thread running through this entire series of articles, and that is surface changes. Surface changes are just as important on sport shots as house shots, if not more so. The effect of surface changes has to be observed by the bowler, so there is no better learning experience than just getting on the lanes and running each ball through all the surface pads you have.
I would suggest starting with each ball very shiny, even polished, and work down one surface at a time, bowling several frames with each ball with each new surface. Each ball responds differently to surface changes, which means you have to learn the characteristics of each ball.
The variety of bowling balls on the market can be overwhelming, and I don’t suggest you mortgage the house and buy every new ball in sight. I suggest a returning bowler only invest in three strike balls with very common layouts. This is where your relationship with your ball driller will become very important. If the driller has a good reputation with bowlers who bowl on sport shots (not just house shots), then that driller will watch you bowl and make suggestions as to what balls to buy. I never recommend particular brands of balls myself because I work with so many bowlers who are on staff with each ball company, but I will suggest you stick with just one brand of ball for now. The odds are you will end up with whatever brand your ball driller likes.
In your search for balls, you may see a familiar face, and that is the urethane ball. If your heydays were the 1980s to early 1990s, you likely threw urethane balls. Urethane balls are making a big comeback—just like you, Mr. or Mrs. Returning Bowler! Many of the urethane balls today have dynamic weight blocks in them, so they are more sophisticated than the ones you threw back in the day, but it wouldn’t hurt to have that familiar face in your bag.
Urethane balls are making their big comeback on sport shots because of their very calm and even-rolling ball reaction. Urethane balls change the lane differently than reactive balls, so you need to be aware of that. Reactive balls soak up oil, which removes it from the lane. With urethane balls, the oil sits on top of the ball, which carries it down the lane as you bowl. Don’t be surprised if the lane appears to get slicker as you bowl. That’s true even if you are using reactive resin, but have others on your lane using urethane.
If you watch the PBA Tour, you will see urethane used a lot, especially by two-handers like Kyle Troup and Jesper Svensson. Keep in mind that the people who have the most success with urethane have very high rev rates, so if you have a problem getting your urethane to carry the corner pins, you may want to try a reactive ball. For many people, urethane balls make great spare balls, so it could take the place of a plastic ball and be used as a strike ball, as well.
Proper lane play will take the longest to learn for any bowler, not just returning bowlers. Lane play is the hardest part to teach. The thing that makes lane play so hard to teach is that the oil is invisible and it keeps changing as you bowl. That means you have to use your eyes to “read” what the ball is telegraphing back to you in every part of the lane. The real fly in the ointment is that everyone sees something different when they watch a ball travel down the lane. The best baseball hitters say they can see the type of spin on a tiny baseball that is coming at them at 80+ mph, but I have a hard time teaching some bowlers to see the spin of their BIG bowling ball traveling away from them at 18 mph. The key to reading an oil pattern and the changes it is going through is reading how the spin on the bowling ball changes as it travels toward the headpin.
I always say that going to the foul line and throwing the ball is only 50% of what a bowler needs to learn to do well. The other 50% takes place after you let go of the ball. Want to learn lane play and ball reaction? Learn to watch how your ball spins from the time it passes by the dots before the arrows until it falls off the back of the lane.
Most returning bowlers don’t have rev rates above 325 RPM, so they won’t be crossing a lot of boards on most sport shots. That actually makes lane play easier. Since most sport shots have more oil in general across all the boards, the returning bowler will likely only be using an area of the lane five to seven boards wide. That means you will be playing more parallel with the boards and not sending the ball across the boards nearly as much as the high-revving players. Try making moves with your target line more parallel instead of left and right with your feet when the oil pattern is fresh and you are trying to get zeroed-in on the pocket. Parallel moves mean that if you are righthanded and your ball misses the headpin to the right, then move your feet and your target left two boards at a time until the ball gets there. If the ball is hitting high on the headpin, then move your feet and target two boards to the right.
After several games, you will have to start moving your feet more boards left than your target—for example, three boards left with your feet and only two boards left with your target. It is very likely as a returning bowler that you will have to move more often and make bigger moves than you ever did back in the day. The lanes change much faster and the balls react to those changes in a very big way, very quickly. If you happen to be a higher rev player, making five board moves with your feet and only two boards with your target may become the norm.
Lastly, always use a spare ball for most spares, especially corner pins. While you can hook a reactive resin ball all the way across the lane on a league shot to make a 7 pin if you are righthanded, it is a very bad habit to get into. If you ever want to graduate to bowling on sport shots—and the fact that you subscribe to BTM tells me that is likely—it is a very bad habit. On sport shots, you generally want to hook the ball very few boards when shooting at spares. For most bowlers, that means using a plastic ball, but some bowlers can use a urethane ball. Low-hooking balls help take the oil pattern out of the equation.
That concludes this series intended to help bowlers who are making a return to the sport after a multi-year layoff. Depending on the length of time you were away, the changes to the sport can be overwhelming. I hope I was able to help bend the learning curve upward for you. I made the same journey myself after a 10 year layoff, so I know what you are up against. I considered all the changes to be my personal challenge, and I hope you do as well. Welcome back!