In my last blog I listed a few of the differences between the players of my era (the 1980’s) and today’s Tour. This week, I’ll be discussing the ONE area that is exactly the same!
Now I know what you’re thinking, “What can possibly be exactly the same?” This is just my opinion, but the same kinds of guys who bowled well in the ‘80’s are EXACTLY the same kinds of guys who bowl well now! And I’m not talking about the names on their backs, though two do make both lists. There have always been two (and only two) types of players who become stars on the PBA Tour: the stone-cold shot-maker and the guy who does something unique that no one else can do. And that’s it! I bet I have your attention now!
Before we start, let’s define the criteria for what constitutes a star. For me it’s five titles and at least five years in the top 20 money winners. This means that to qualify, a bowler had to be very good for a considerable period of time – a true measure of success in any sport. Let’s also define what I mean by a “stone-cold shot-maker” and a “unique” player. Basically, the first type is a player who isn’t affected or simply doesn’t care about the lane conditions – they just want to bowl a lot of games! On the other hand, a unique player is someone who has the ability to do something on Tour that nobody else can do. And, since life isn’t exactly fair when it comes to sports, there are a scary few who actually fall into BOTH categories.
Now the fun part: listing players from each era in their respective category.
When I first went on Tour in the early ‘80’s, picking out the shot makers was easy. There was Dave Soutar, Mike Durbin, George Pappas, Gary Dickinson, and the two best: Earl Anthony and Mark Roth. That’s right, Mark Roth! Some might think he belongs in the other group, but not me. Mark’s fundamentals were pure! Forget about the number of steps he took, go watch a youtube video of Mark and look how straight his swing was from its peak through the release, how low and how well-balanced he was in his next to last step, and how accurate he was – the guy was a shot-maker! Want more proof? Look at all the shows Mark made where it was he and four straight players! Plus, he had a shot maker’s mentality. When asked about the lane conditions one week, I heard him reply (we roomed together for a year, by the way, so I got to know him pretty well) “There’s 10 pins at the end of the lane, right? Let’s bowl!”
Now as we moved on later in the decade, other great bowlers added their names to the shot-maker list, including: Wayne Webb, Dave Husted, Dave Ferraro, and Tony Westlake, but the best of this time was easily Brian Voss. BV could flat out bowl! A few of these players also had unique-ness, which made them really tough. More on those guys in a bit.
The stone-cold shot-makers of today include Walter Ray Williams, Jr., Pete Weber, Chris Barnes, Norm Duke, Mika Kouvuniemi, Parker Bohn III, and Bill O’Neill (I know Bill doesn’t quite fit into the “star” category I defined just yet, but he’s already close and he soon will). These guys don’t really care what the pattern is or where you have to play. They can beat you just with the quality of their shots compounded over time. And because the lanes change so much over the course of a tournament due to the equipment, there’s rarely ever an event that allows you to do “your thing” from start to finish, so the shot-makers almost always have a built-in advantage the longer the tournament goes.
Before we go into my list in this category, a word to those hoping to try the Tour. Most good bowlers who decide to go out on Tour do so because they can do something that nobody else in their area can do. Usually this is making the ball hook a lot and strike – ah youth! But while at home you’re known as the man who can get deeper and get it back from farther right than anyone else, on Tour – Guess what? – you have Tommy Jones to your left and Sean Rash on your pair and Wes Malott a pair to the right. After three games the fronts are gone, the back ends have gotten tighter, and these three are on cruise control, all +100 or more! Welcome to the Tour! After six straight weeks of this, you notice Barnes makes the finals on everything (remember, he’s a shot-maker) so you decide to model your game after his. Big mistake because now, you’ve lost your uniqueness! Good luck trying to make shots with those guys!
In the 1980’s there were four players who really stood out when it came to uniqueness, namely, Marshall Holman, Amleto Monacelli, Mike Aulby and Del Ballard, Jr.
Marshall seemed to always have at least two more boards of swing than the rest of the field, because of his unique release. Marshall was also the best qualifier on Tour, period. Everyone knows that Marsh could get fired up on TV, but his real strength was that he was fired up in game one of a tournament and was able to sustain that fire all the way through the week. He also seemed to be in the top three after six games every week, and we all knew he would whack them at night, so Marshall never sweated making the finals on Thursday – he was always 150 or more pins above the number. Then, by qualifying in the top three, his cross in the finals was easier. On Tour back then, more than 50% of the tournaments were held in two-sided houses, so Marshall would always bowl his first eight games on low side, his last eight games on the high side, and might have to jump from one side to the other two or three times. Anybody who ever made a finals at Red Carpet Lanes in Milwaukee knows that is a looooooong walk between sides.
Amleto Monacelli’s uniqueness was summed up by this exact quote: “I stand on the big dot, throw it to the gutter and it come back every time!” Amleto was the only bowler on the planet who could do that for a three-year run, which allowed him (and him alone) to play the lanes exactly how and where he wanted. Seriously, so many times in the 1980’s, he would make the show on Friday night playing in the OUT OF BOUNDS! More than one Friday night after the finals were over, myself, Dave Husted, David Ozio, and Steve Wunderlich would get the pair Amleto just shot 279 on to make the show and try to play them ourselves. After a half hour of utter futility not being able to throw more than a double, we would just look at each other, scratch our heads and laugh. Dave and I would leave and those other two would stay and practice all night, never figuring out Amleto’s trick!
Mike Aulby was perhaps the most unique of all the bowlers I competed against. Mike never wasted energy or changed his game when the left side wasn’t in play. Because he conserved his energy, when Mike got it, he usually won! Easily the best winner of my era, he never wasted an opportunity to bowl for a title, especially in the majors. He was always “there” mentally. When the question gets asked, “If you had to pick one bowler to hit the pocket for your life?” my answer is always Mike Aulby – he always hit the pocket for the money.
Another bowler who could do something the rest of us couldn’t was Del Ballard Jr. He could make his ball read on synthetics, which, back then, was huge. We bowled mostly on wood, so a hard lane surface was tricky – but not for Del. With that heavy end-over-end roll, he dominated on the new lane surface. The first place we bowled on it was the 1987 U.S. Open in Tacoma, WA, which featured the Tour’s first $100,000 first prize. The winner? Mr. Delmus P. Ballard, of course!
The star players on Tour today who succeed because they are unique include Sean Rash, Wes Malott, Jason Couch and Mike Scroggins.
TJ’s trick is that he can create hold when there is none. How? He does it because of how clean he can get the ball onto the lane, but still throw it fairly hard with a huge rev rate. The speed creates the hold, but his ball still picks up and recovers because of the rev rate.
Sean’s athletic ability and pure strength allow him to overpower a lane – don’t kid yourself – this is one strong young man. But his trick is that he’s got 15-baggers in his hand! What do I mean by this? Well Sean can start striking at any given time, and throw 15-baggers at the drop of the hat – usually after he’s been struggling for a couple of games. One minute Sean can be hovering around even and all of a sudden you look up at the board and he’s 200 over!
When he’s on, his ball motion is the closest thing we have to Marshall Holman among today’s players – which, for anyone who competed in the 80’s – is the ultimate compliment. He makes his ball hook with the least amount of effort. Now with Wes being such a big guy, it’s all about getting his body in the right position at release, something that was much easier for the shorter Holman to do. As Husted would say, “Their ball looks like it slows so much at 45 feet it almost stops, then the ball gets bigger and just sucks up into the pocket!” Now that, my friend, is a TRICK!
COUCH / SCROGGINS
Jason’s trick is obvious – he bowls like a right-hander – meaning he would rather play in than out. This is very unusual for lefty and it’s also what has allowed him to be a great winner.
Scroggins is on the other end of the spectrum – he can always play farther left than all the lefties because his ball never reads the fronts but still has a nice motion on the backend, so he lives in the pocket. On low or high-scoring conditions, his pocket percentage is always among the leaders, which is why he’s made so many TV shows the last six or seven years.
BOTH (STONE-COLD SHOT-MAKER AND UNIQUE)
Husted could play left of 25 without really getting the ball right of 13 down lane, and his ball would still hit – hence, three U.S. Open wins.
Earl had the ability to make it when no other lefty made the top 24 – then he’d run the field over on Friday when he had the left side of the lane all to himself.
Ferraro’s trick was in the mental game: he always had 100% confidence – he never doubted himself. As a guy who always had doubts about my own ability, I was always jealous of this.
We mentioned TJ’s trick above, but you don’t get to 10 titles faster than anyone in PBA history, without being both a shot maker and having a trick. Proof that he’s a shot-maker too? He’s won a U.S. Open (and made a couple other TV shows in that event as well) and that tournament is all about making shots for five long days!
The Green Machine. Probably the most underrated of all the superstars. I believe Wayne was the first bowler to actually have an A game and a B game. Wayne was known early in his career for hooking it, and was then considered a power player, but he also developed the ability to go dead straight in the heads and play out with a lot of forward roll. Wayne was so good on TV because many times he would do the opposite of what got him there, especially when it was a show filled with fellow power players. He would go right to the straight game and run the tables. If he made it against all straight players, he would be able to play an arrow deeper than everyone else – WINNING!
The man, WRW2. This guy’s the ultimate shot maker and possesses a great trick, a little something that used to be called “red ball up five.” Well guess what? Everybody on Tour had their version of the red ball available to them, and 1st arrow doesn’t have Walter’s name on it exclusively, though maybe it should, because he was the only man alive who could win from there eight different ways!
Norman Duke, besides amazing shot making ability, can throw it hard without hitting the finger holes with his hand, but the ball will still hit! At this year’s U.S. Open, he was laying it down at 12 (without grabbing it), going over 10 at the arrows, and his ball hit 10 again at 45’, and still made the move to strike. Good luck beating him when they’re tough!
Last but not least is the great Pete Weber. He is the only player who should be inducted into the PBA Hall of Fame twice! That’s right! He won more than 15 titles with two completely different styles – one pre-resin and a totally different one post. In the 1980’s Pete was known for keeping the ball on line (preferably from out) with the fastest hand at release and a hard snap at the finish. The ball would go straight through the fronts then make a hard move into the pocket. Then after a two-year slump in the mid ‘90’s, he’s gone on to win another 15-plus titles (and two more U.S. Opens) with the slowest and softest hand on Tour. With this new release, he usually plays a medium speed, opens up the heads, and plays deep inside. Are you kidding me?! This is why my vote for the most talented player in the history of the Tour is none other than Peter Weber.
I know there are quite a few other names that meet the star criteria we set out above that I didn’t mention. But that’s the fun part! See if you can figure out for yourself why those bowlers were stars. Were they shot-makers, unique players (and if they were, try to figure out what their trick was) or both? In closing, the bottom line is if you want to make it on the Pro Bowlers Tour, you will enhance your chances by becoming a stone-cold shot-maker, or take whatever uniqueness you may possess and make it better! Good luck!