LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Bill O’Neill needs to win one game Sunday for $50,000 and his second Professional Bowlers Association major title.
But beginning Friday, Australia’s Jason Belmonte and Wes Malott of Pflugerville, Texas, face staggering odds if they hope to upset the 2011 PBA World Championship’s leading qualifier and deny O’Neill’s bid for one of the Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour’s most prized titles.
The thing is, neither Belmonte nor Malott is intimidated by the long odds. Nor are the other five guys who are waiting in line for a shot at the title.
The first PBA major championship of the 2010-11 season will be decided in a first-ever three-day, eight-man stepladder final that will air live on ESPN2 and ESPN beginning Friday at South Point Bowling Center and concluding Sunday, Jan. 16, at 1 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m. Pacific) when the surviving finalist meets O’Neill to decide the title.
The eight PBA World Championship finalists qualified for the finals over a span of five days and 60 games on five different PBA lane conditioning patterns during the PBA World Series of Bowling in October at South Point. The live ESPN2/ESPN finals will wrap up the PBA World Championship and conclude the World Series of Bowling.
In order for Belmonte or Malott to win the title, one or the other will have to win seven consecutive matches over a span of three days, bowling on the PBA Viper lane condition selected by O’Neill. O’Neill, who won the Pepsi Viper Championship earlier in the World Series, earned the right to select the lane condition as the leading qualifier over 60 games.
In the 52-year history of the PBA Tour, and nearly 1,000 nationally-televised finals, only three bowlers have emerged from the No. 7 or No. 8 starting positions to win a title – and none of those three faced a road inclined quite as steeply as the one Belmonte and Malott face.
In the purest of bowling traditions dating back 50 years, the true “stepladder” format calls for the lowest qualifying bowler to bowl a game against the next highest qualifier. The winner of each match continues to “climb the ladder” against the next highest qualifier with one survivor eventually meeting the tournament’s qualifying leader in a match to decide the title.
During the 2000 season, the PBA experimented with a variation of the stepladder format involving “shootout” matches with three players bowling one game, and the top player advancing. That version of the stepladder allowed for eight players in the “stepladder” instead of the traditional five.
In the 2000 “shootout” format, Parker Bohn III of Jackson, N.J., and Dennis Horan Jr. of Temecula, Calif., advanced from No. 8 to victory in the 2000 Chattanooga Open and PBA Touring Players Championship, respectively. Doug Kent of Newark, N.Y., advanced from seventh to first in the Indianapolis Open. In each case, the three had to win four matches.
This time, making it from the No. 8 or No. 7 position all the way to the top will require Belmonte or Malott to win seven matches without a loss.
The Belmonte vs. Malott contest will get the PBA World Championship finals underway at 5 p.m. Eastern (2 p.m. Pacific) on Friday, live on ESPN2. The winner will meet No. 6 qualifier Michael Haugen Jr. of Carefree, Ariz., to complete the first one-hour telecast.
Saturday at 9 p.m. Eastern/6 p.m. Pacific, also live on ESPN2, Friday’s survivor will bowl No. 5 Mika Koivuniemi of Hartland, Mich., with No. 4 Chris Barnes of Double Oak, Texas, awaiting the winner in a second one-hour telecast.
Sunday’s PBA World Championship finals move back to ESPN for the live conclusion at 1 p.m. Eastern. Saturday’s survivor will meet No. 3 qualifier Osku Palermaa of Finland. No. 2 Sean Rash of Montgomery, Ill., will bowl the winner in the semifinal match. O’Neill will then take on that winner in a one-game battle for $50,000 and the season’s first major title.
That’s how the plot for the PBA World Championship is laid out. Here’s the role each of the cast of characters will play starting Friday:
NO. 8 JASON BELMONTE, AUSTRALIA
Belmonte, a two-handed player, was 2008-09 PBA Rookie of the Year after winning his first title in the 2009 Bowling Foundation Long Island Classic. He finished in a tie for 115th place in the Pepsi Viper Championship qualifying portion of the World Series of Bowling.
“The Viper pattern is one of my weaker patterns,” Belmonte said. “Everyone on Tour knows this, so I plan to use this as my advantage. I will have to bowl much smarter and let my natural game fit around the pattern.
“From the bottom spot, I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. To win this event I will have to focus on each frame and just have fun. I bowl my best when I have a smile on my face.
“To win any event is very special, but majors have that little extra 'special' about them. Considering I came back from over 400 pins just to make this show, to win it will prove to me that I can come back and win from anywhere against the best bowlers in the world.”
NO. 7 WES MALOTT, PFLUGERVILLE, TEXAS
The 2008-09 PBA Player of the Year is a six-time Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour titlist. He finished second in the 2009 PBA World Championship to Tom Smallwood, and he finished 38th in the Pepsi Viper qualifying round of the World Series of Bowling.
“I don’t know if there’s a pattern I don’t like,” Malott said. “I didn’t match up well at South Point, but the Viper also was at the beginning of the week and I was just starting to get a good feel for my game. I have an open mind about the pattern going into the TV show.
“Obviously it’s going to be difficult winning from the No. 7 position, but it’s possible. If you look at the sport, a couple of years ago I ran through the field and beat the best of the best. It’s just one match at a time, so I’ll try to grind through it and hopefully get to the title match.
“The World Championship is one of those things on my checklist of goals,” Malott added. “It’s going to be a little different format this time, but it’s even more of a major because we had to bowl on five patterns to get there. It’s at the top of my list. Winning it is one of those things I need to check off sooner rather than later. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m not going to get excited. I’ve done quite a bit already in my career.”
NO. 6 MICHAEL HAUGEN JR., CAREFREE, ARIZ.
Haugen owns two PBA Tour titles including the 2008 PBA Tournament of Champions. Haugen qualified for match play in the Pepsi Viper Championship in 11th place, but dropped to 16th after the match play portion of the event.
“The TV lights and the amount of practice we bowl before we actually start competing will turn the Viper pattern into something different, so the pattern itself really doesn't matter,” Haugen said. “It comes down to who wants it the most and bowls the best.
“I’m the sixth seed, so there’s nothing too hard to figure out here. I need to bowl better than the other guys and win lots of matches.
“Winning the World Championship would mean another major for me and a nice run against a very talented top eight field.”
NO. 5 MIKA KOIVUNIEMI, HARTLAND, MICH.
The eight-time PBA Tour champion won the 2000 USBC Masters and 2001 U.S. Open, but he hasn’t won a title since the 2007 DyDo Japan Cup. Koivuniemi finished eighth in the Pepsi Viper Championship after qualifying for match play in second place.
“The Viper pattern is what I would be picking if I was the No. 1 seed,” Koivuniemi said, “so I like it in that building (South Point) with the oil they are using.
“I need to bowl good and use whatever opportunities I might get, but everything is possible. All I can do is make great shots and do the right moves when needed.
“Winning the World Championship would be a very big deal. To win any tournament is good, and it’s more special to win a major - even more so one like this with a long format. It has been too long since my last win, so I think it will be my turn.”
NO. 4 CHRIS BARNES, DOUBLE OAK, TEXAS
The 12-time PBA Tour titlist owns the 2005 U.S. Open and 2006 Tournament of Champions titles, but didn’t win last season for the first time in 10 years.
“I just missed making match play in the Viper Championship,” Barnes said. “One of the things I figured out as we went along during the World Series was that I needed to gear my equipment more to cleaner cover stocks and weaker drilling layouts. I got caught a little bit toward the end of the Viper with balls that weren’t quite clean enough. That won’t be an issue on the TV show this time because we’re not bowling that many games.
“By qualifying fourth, it gets me past the first day of matches. Getting a bye for a few rounds isn’t a bad thing. All I have to do is win one match to get to Sunday, and that’s when the fun will begin.
“Winning the World Championship means the Triple Crown for me,” he added. “That’s a big one on my bucket list. It’s huge, but it won’t add any more pressure than anything else. The same goals have been around for a long time, so it’s not an oh-my-gosh moment.”
NO. 3 OSKU PALERMAA, FINLAND
Europe’s top two-handed player won his first PBA title in the GEICO Shark Championship, the final “animal pattern” event of the World Series. Palermaa finished in a tie for 30th in the qualifying portion of the Pepsi Viper Championship.
“The Viper is, if not the toughest, then the second toughest of the animal patterns,” Palermaa said. “For me it definitely is not the easiest one. But when I stay on top of my game and bowl good, it should do good.
“I'm seeded No. 3, so I'm bowling in the first match of Sunday’s show,” he added. “If I just get through that match, I'm going to have the advantage of being on the lanes before my matches against Sean (Rash) and then Bill (O’Neill).
“I just won my first title, and that was awesome, but a major would just be even more. And actually, because I am not being exempt or qualified for the Elite Field for the PBA Tournament of Champions, I'm gonna have a hectic Sunday. I first have to bowl the World Championship show at 10 a.m. (Las Vegas time) and then bowl the first round of the Champions Field in the Tournament of Champions at 1 p.m. at Red Rock Lanes. So having to bowl in the biggest tournament ever straight after the World Championship with barely time to eat in between is gonna feel even better when I win it.”
NO. 2 SEAN RASH, MONTGOMERY, ILL.
The four-time PBA Tour champion won the first seven matches he bowled on television, but he hasn’t won a title since the 2007 USBC Masters. He finished the match play portion of the Pepsi Viper Championship in 10th place.
“I think the Viper pattern fits my game really well,” Rash said. “There are multiple ways to play this pattern, either from the right or when the lane transitions, you can move in and hook it. Over the last few years I have had a lot of success on it.
“The thing that has to happen for me is to win my first match and just let things happen. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I need to just bowl like I did on the Chameleon show. If I have fun and enjoy the moment like I did when I first got on Tour, the pins will fall the way they need to fall.
“Winning the World Championship will help start the year off right and give me momentum going into the TOC. Major championships are what players are remembered by and winning this will add to the 2007 USBC Masters I won.”
NO. 1 BILL O’NEILL, SOUTHAMPTON, PA.
O’Neill won his third PBA Tour title in the Pepsi Viper Championship, winning four straight matches after qualifying No. 4 for the ESPN finals. O’Neill, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, finished third in the 2009 PBA World Championship.
“I bowled four matches on TV on the Viper pattern and had a great ball reaction. We’ll be bowling on the same pair of lanes for the World Championship finals, so I’ll take my chances.
“Last year I spent the whole three months between qualifying and bowling in the finals wondering what it would be like to win, and it kinda negatively impacted me. I put too much pressure on myself. This time, I’m going to be more relaxed and just do what I’m going to do. I’ve got one game to bowl and I’m going to try to make every shot count.
“This is why we all came to the World Series to Bowling – to win the World Championship.”
2011 PBA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP FINALS SCHEDULE
South Point Bowling Center, Las Vegas, Nev., Jan. 14-16
FRIDAY, JAN. 14 (ESPN2)
2 p.m. (5 p.m. Eastern, 2 p.m. Pacific) – PBA World Championship, Stepladder Round One (No. 8 Jason Belmonte, Australia, vs. No. 7 Wes Malott, Pflugerville, Texas; winner bowls No. 6 Michael Haugen Jr., Carefree, Ariz.)
SATURDAY, JAN. 15 (ESPN2)
6 p.m. (9 p.m. Eastern, 6 p.m. Pacific) – PBA World Championship, Stepladder Round Two (Friday winner vs. No. 5 Mika Koivuniemi, Hartland, Mich.; winner bowls No. 4 Chris Barnes, Double Oak, Texas)
SUNDAY, JAN. 16 (ESPN)
10 a.m. (1 p.m. Eastern, 11 a.m. Pacific) – PBA World Championship (Saturday winner vs. No. 3 Osku Palermaa, Finland; winner bowls No. 2 Sean Rash, Montgomery, Ill.; winner bowls No. 1 Bill O’Neill, Southampton, Pa., for title)
PBA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP PRIZE MONEY
1st - $50,000 and two-year Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour exemption
2nd - $25,000
3rd - $14,000
4th - $12,000
5th - $11,000
6th - $10,000
7th - $9,000
8th - $8,000