This week on the Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour featured the granddaddy of all major tournaments, the 67th Lumber Liquidators U.S. Open. Traditionally, this is the tournament where the best of the best never fail to rise to the top, and this week’s telecast was no different.
Following a position round for the ages (seen live on Xtra Frame Saturday night, and that I still can't believe), four Hall-of-Fame caliber players qualified for TV in a four-man, three-match stepladder format.
In match 1, Tommy Jones (who's quietly been bowling phenomenally the past few months without qualifying for TV) took on his buddy and fellow Ebonite staffer Jason Couch. Couch bowled great all week but may have been suffering from a little bit of shell shock from the night before after the way he dodged three bazooka bullets from Jason Belmonte, Norm Duke and Walter Ray Williams, Jr. in the position round.
This match was over almost before it started, with TJ jumping out to a game-opening six-bagger and burying Couch, who actually bowled pretty well for a U.S. Open-difficulty-level oil pattern. But his carry-challenged (he left four flat 7's) 192 game wasn't even close and TJ rolled into match 2 with a 245 score.
Facing Bill O'Neill in the semifinal, Jones made a questionable ball change (he told Rob and Randy via the Inside Angle feature that the oil had carried down just enough to put him between balls) but his choice to switch caused him to get off to a terrible 36 in the 3rd start and give O'Neill the breathing room on TV he's been waiting for.
O'Neill, who with a win would vault past Walter Ray Williams, Jr. in the PBA Player of the Year point race, started shaky but righted the ship with a double in frames 3 and 4, then salted the match away with another double in the 7th and 8th as Jones continued to struggle to a 152 final score. As Randy correctly pointed out, at the US Open, you can be lined up for a game and look like a champ, but then the lanes change slightly and you suddenly look like a beginner. But it was a good week for TJ and finally gave us a chance to see one of the Tour's most gifted players on TV once again.
That set up the title tilt between Billy O and Mike Scroggins, who quietly plodded his way up the leaderboard all week long, then utilized a 300 game in the final round of match play (also captured live on Xtra Frame, you really do need to sign up for this by the way, if you haven't already) to vault him into the top seed (he'd also defeated O'Neill in the position round battle for 1st while everyone else was focused on the carnage taking place for the 4th spot) heading into the TV show.
After a clean spare-strike-spare-strike start for Scroggins gave him a 3-pin lead through four frames, O'Neill began putting together one of the all-time great 10-baggers in TV history. I was actually just outside the TV set, watching on a monitor inside Woodland Bowl, and with each successive strike the crowd got louder and more fully behind BO. By the 8th frame (which was the one that locked up the win) the energy of the crowd and the intensity of O'Neill started to give me the chills (either that or someone left the door open behind where I was sitting and let the frigid 20-degree air into the building) and I began to appreciate what I was witnessing...which was nothing less than the true arrival of the next PBA superstar. But before I go on to put O'Neill's win into perspective here in a second, we have to take a moment and give Scroggins a huge amount of credit for his valiant defense of the title he won last year. I know a lot of people complain about the simple way Scroggins throws the ball and his lack of charisma on TV, but two things about Mike stand out for me and those are: 1) the guy can flat-out bowl and he is a no doubt future Hall-of-Famer and 2) he is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet (heck, he even stayed at Mike Aulby's house this week, who is one of the all-time nicest guys on the planet, and you know what they say about birds of a feather flocking together, right?)
As for O'Neill, although his physical talent isn't quite as jaw-dropping as his fellow Brat Packers (Belmonte and Mike Fagan), he is clearly the one who has totally figured out how to get it done on the PBA Tour. No less a talent evaluator than Chris Barnes (who put up a solid 11th-place finish this week and whom I would consider to be the best talent critic in the world considering his encyclopedic knowledge of the game and how it should be properly played) told me between shots in match play that O'Neill is "scary good." He also pointed out O'Neill's one microscopic flaw (a tendency to pitch one shot per game through the break point), and said that he is so close to figuring it out that when he does it will be "really bad for all of us out here for a really long time." Um, that's pretty high praise, you think?
For now, O'Neill is the latest champion of bowling's toughest-to-win and most coveted prize, he sits nearly on top of the money list (second to WRW by a few bucks) and is tops in the Player of the Year point race, and he is due to marry his sweetheart this spring and go on a 2-week honeymoon cruise in Europe. Plus, he's just one of the most down-to-earth, hardest-working, self-deprecating, fun-to-hang-out-with guys you'd ever want to meet. Yep, life is good for Billy O...and it couldn't be happening to a more deserving guy.