Well, at least now Tom Smallwood (remember him? Laid off ex-GM worker who became PBA World Champion just over a month ago?) will get a little rest.
After Kelly Kulick’s historic big bang at the PBA Tournament of Champions this Sunday, I would imagine the reporters will be flocking faster to Ms. Kulick than if Brad and Angelina had just broken up. (Wait, they have?)
I’d also imagine that a few of you who are reading this are first-time visitors to our cozy little pba.com website, considering our web traffic jumped like 2-zillion percent in the past 24 hours (what do you think of the site by the way? Can I interest you in an Xtra Frame subscription for just $7.99 a month in return for more bowling than you can shake a stick at?). Because of that anticipated influx of new readers, we’re going to spend a little more time explaining exactly why Kelly’s win is so significant (and so amazing) in layman’s terms.
First off, in bowling, women have had slightly more success competing against men (although not much more) than they have in other sports like golf and tennis. The reason? Lane conditions. You see, sometimes the oil that is placed on the lanes can favor bowlers with less strength and power than others, and this is usually the time when women have had success against men in professional bowling events. What was amazing about Kelly Kulick’s performance this week, however, was that this was not the case at the Tournament of Champions. It was like Annika Sorenstam beating the men in The Masters at a fully stretched out Augusta National.
This week’s lane conditions favored no one and allowed bowlers to play just about any place on the lane that they felt comfortable, which I personally like because then the sport becomes more of a test of physical and mental performance than a battle of luck dictated by who picked the right piece of equipment and who carried the higher percentage of strikes on pocket hits. In short, Kelly simply out-bowled every one of the best bowlers in the world for an entire week.
And this also was not one of those best-of-seven elimination formats, where you might catch an opponent on an off-day or advance through the field by some other measure of random chance. This tournament was a good old-fashioned grind-it-out-for-48-games grudge match among 63 of the best players in the world (all champions by the way), so any weakness or momentary lapse in concentration would have deep-sixed any chance you might have had of winning. For the week, only one bowler (Chris Barnes) accumulated more pins than Kelly Kulick, so our heroine sat in the second seed heading into Sunday’s ESPN finals, needing to win just two matches to accomplish her historic achievement. Oh, and did I forget to mention that the PBA Tournament of Champions is the most prestigious tournament on the Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour?
In Match 1, the always intense Rhino Page took on Mika Koivuniemi, who appeared on TV wearing a pair of pants so god awful, you’d have thought he lost a bet. Actually he did, for when he lost to Chris Barnes in the Don Johnson Eliminator last season, he promised to wear those pants the next time he made it to TV.
Despite looking like a clown, Mika certainly didn’t bowl like one, shooting a strong 255 to prevail over Rhino’s 215. The story of this match was Rhino starting off with a very aggressive ball and figuring out midway through that he needed to switch to something with a little less hook. After that, he struck at will but it was too late. NOTE TO NEW BOWLERS: TV bowling is very cruel in the same way sudden death playoffs in golf or set tiebreakers in tennis can be.
With one win under his garish white belt, Koivuniemi took on Kelly Kulick and about 500 screaming fans in the bleachers surrounding the TV pair at Red Rock Lanes (a gorgeous casino/resort just a few miles off the strip in Vegas). Kelly looked a bit shaky (understandably so when you’ve got the weight of history on your shoulders in addition to a 15-pound bowling ball and a mean-looking six-foot-five Finnish dude trying to send you off into oblivion) for the first five frames, but settled down to go double, nine-spare, strike heading into the tenth frame. Despite two opens in the first six frames, Mika still had a possible 223 if he were to strike out in the 10th. As Kelly got up in her 10th she needed two strikes and seven pins to move into the finals. On the first one she leaked the ball way right of target, but it hooked back just enough to catch a piece of the pocket and carry a light mixer. The second shot was pure perfection, a dead-flush bomb that sent all ten pins straight back into the pit. One more strike gave Kelly a 227, shutting the door on Mika and his pants and carrying Kulick straight into the championship match against none other than the 2007-2008 PBA Player of the Year and unofficial best bowler on the planet, Chris Barnes.
Barnes came into the show looking for some redemption for his epic collapse two years ago against Michael Haugen Jr. in the final, when he squandered a 56-pin lead in just four frames to lose. Over on the VIP side of the house, where Barnes was practicing, he looked loose and confident, switching back and forth between watching the action on TV, and staying loose by throwing a few shots here and there. But after his first shot of the match hydroplaned by the pocket and barely nicked the headpin, his demeanor went from lady-killer to that guy in Swingers who kept calling the girl he’d just met at the bar earlier that night over and over again.
It took Chris a full eight frames before he could muster two strikes in a row, and by then Kelly had him completely buried. With the first four strikes, a 7-10 split, then four more X’s, Kulick led by 61 pins heading into the 9th, and had ample opportunity to savor the moment and think very carefully about her victory speech. After closing out the match with a double and nine in the 10th, her 265-195 rout vaulted her into the record books as the first woman to win a PBA Tour event and, on the anticlimactic side, two more years of exemptions to bowl against the guys to go along with the year she spent on Tour back in 2006-2007 when she also made history by winning a spot through the Tour Trials against the men.
After the match, the adoring crowd embraced Kelly as their own, and Kulick uttered a number of extremely apropos comments and aphorisms to mark the achievement on TV. If you know Kelly, she is the epitome of an athlete, usually keeping her remarks very focused on the task at hand and, unlike some athletes, actually living up to and following through upon those words of clichéd wisdom on the lanes. She no doubt checked herself numerous times throughout the week and continued to focus on her performance when lesser athletes might have given in to the pressure and came up short.
Her chief concern after the telecast, when it had already become apparent that she had almost immediately risen to the level of one of the most famous people in the world (confirmed by the fact that as of Monday morning she was the #1 most searched item on Google and Yahoo!’s home pages), was making sure she would be able to accompany her mother, who was confined to a wheelchair this week, back home to New Jersey. But after that, she belongs to the world, and the world can certainly be thankful that the visibility Kelly will no doubt receive over the next several weeks, months and years will have the power to inspire not only young girls with hopes of becoming professional bowlers, but men, women and children of all walks of life.
It hardly seems important now, but this week at the One a Day Dick Weber Open (which gets underway Wednesday), yours truly will be bowling in the tournament. I will be wearing a microphone and will have a camera following me around (with another on the field in case my day gets too ugly to watch) during qualifying (I will be on A squad, competing at 11am ET and 10pm ET) as a special treat for Xtra Frame fans. I'm pretty sure I won't be on the show next week (well, maybe a little more than pretty sure) but if I am, it will certainly make for an interesting perspective for next week's recap. Until then, enjoy all of the wall-to-wall, all-Kelly-all-the-time media bonanza!