ABC conditions aren't easy, but bowlers respond with flurry of 300 games
BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff Bob Winston, a 69-year-old bowler from Lexington, N.C., rolled a 290 game at the ABC Tournament on Tuesday. After a spare in the first frame, Winston notched 11 straight strikes. Winston rolled a 695 series to grab the lead in the Classified singles division.

It all started when a bowling proprietor from Bozeman, packing just one ball and wearing a pair of rental shoes, rolled the first 300 game at this year's American Bowling Congress Tournament at the Expo Center.

A few days later, a Billings bowler, appearing in his first game at his first ABC Tournament, made tournament history by stringing together 12 strikes and debuting with a perfect game.

"I kept thinking maybe there was a full moon out," said John Forst, who is overseeing the maintenance work on the tournament's 48 synthetic lanes. "There were some weird things."

During a span of seven days (Feb. 16-22), five 300 games and one 299 went into the record book at the ABC Tournament. That prompted some observers to ask: "Are the state-of-the-art AMF lanes too easy for the bowlers?"

The answer is a resounding "no" from Forst, who is lane technician for Kegel, the Florida company maintaining the lanes for the ABC Tournament.

"You've got to have a lot of things going for you to get them," Forst said of rolling a 300 game. "A lot of it has to do with luck."

And, equipment aside, a lot has to do with who is bowling in front of you, how the lane's oil dressing is being carved up or erased and how well the pins are carrying, said Forst.

"I'm fairly happy with what I see here," he said of the lane conditions. "What I'm happy with is that the bowlers seem to think they have a chance. They like what they see … There's just a lot of oil up front. There's a nice back end. They (the bowlers) can react to the way their ball reacts."

There have been five 300 games since the tournament began on Feb. 9. There were 21 total during last year's 141-day tournament at Reno's National Bowling Stadium.

Bowlers try to read lanes much like a golfer deciphers putting greens. The ones interviewed this week agreed that the lanes in Billings aren't easy to gauge. Some felt the shot was outside, others said inside.

"National tournament conditions should be a tough condition," said Scotty Gunderson, a former Billings bowler now living in Wisconsin. "It's scoreable; it's playable, certainly. But you have to throw the ball well and that's how national tournaments should be."

Over 54,000 bowlers are scheduled to bowl in Billings before the tournament wraps up on June 23. More honor scores, no doubt, loom ahead.

"We've had a lot of good players come through, but we still haven't had that group of 'really' good players," said the 41-year-old Forst, a former professional bowler.

Bob Winston, a 69-year-old bowler from Lexington, N.C., was really good on Tuesday in fashioning a 290 game. After a spare in the first frame, Winston notched 11 straight strikes.

"I found that the inside shot was the best," he said afterward. "I was going over the third arrow (from the channel) … If you find a line like I did, just try to stay with it."

This is the 99th year for the ABC Tournament and a total of 418 perfect games have been recorded.

"We do put a little pool together to see how many we're going to have," said Butch Wittman, the ABC's customer service manager. "My number? It will probably be in the 55 area."

According to The Bowlers Encyclopedia, there were 40 300s in 1996 in Salt Lake City, which was the last AMF installation prior to Billings. Some other high marks for 300 games in tournament competition include 51 in Tulsa, Okla., in 1993, 48 in Toledo, Ohio in 1991 and 44 in Wichita, Kan., in 1989.

Only five 300 games were rolled at the ABC Tournament between 1913-1938. There wasn't five in one year until 44 in 1989.

"There's all kinds of technology in the sport now," noted Forst.

Kegel, a Sebring, Fla., company, has four machines, costing around $27,000 apiece, in use at the ABC tournament to simultaneously strip and oil the lanes three times per day (for 7 a.m., noon and 7:30 p.m. shifts).

A specific amount of oil conditioning is applied to the first 39 feet of the lanes, said Forst.

Not all of the bowlers get to compete on fresh oil, but Forst said he has tried to develop an oiling pattern so the freshness of the oil isn't a deciding factor as to who scores well. The same oiling pattern will be used throughout the nearly 135-day tournament.

Oil on the lane causes the ball to skid, while dry areas cause the ball to hook or bite.

"I'm not really looking at the 300s or 800s, I'm looking for fairness to all the players in the tournament," Forst said of his lane maintenance responsibilities. "It would have been more of a concern to me if three of them (with 300s) would have had 800 for their (three-game) series. That would have told me something. But when one of them had less than 600 …."

Simply put, perfect games shouldn't be taken for granted or dismissed as being too easy.

A colorful graph, which shows the shape of the oil on each lane, is made available to ABC bowlers before they start their games.

"There will be some people that look at it and say 'I know where to play,' " said Forst. "There will be other people that say 'nice scribble.' "

What the graph doesn't tell the bowler is what's underneath the oil, some of which gets carried down the 60 foot lanes or is absorbed by the ball.

"The ball is reading the oil, but it's also reading the topography of the lanes," Forst said. "The lanes aren't flat."

Lane wear, along with changes in temperature and humidity, help see to that.

"People always assume the lane's flat," added Forst. "If you're truly an ant looking at the lanes, it looks like the hills (pointing to the Rimrocks) out there. That's what the bowling ball is seeing."

Forst, who spent 13 years on the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) Tour and won one event, has also bowled in 17 ABC Tournaments. He bowled a 300 at the 1991 tournament in Toledo, Ohio.

While his lane maintenance duties prevent him from bowling in this year's ABC Tournament, Forst can offer advice.

"Play everywhere, find your comfort zone and then try to exploit it," he said. "I think if you give yourself a chance by knowing the whole part of the lane early it will help you later."

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