Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Not your grandpa's lawn-bowling event

Fans watch the national lawn bowling championships. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 19, 2009


The fans were going mild.

Out in the parking lot, bottles of water were chugged in an impromptu tailgate party in which the goal seemed to be to get fall-down hydrated.

Once inside the venue, some painted their faces.

Though, to tell the truth, the paint was likely sunscreen.

Welcome to the genteel world of the Canadian Lawn Bowling Championships, being held this week at the Juan de Fuca Bowling Greens in suburban Colwood.

The pleasant clacking of bowl on bowl interrupted the hush of intense competition. It sounded like the clinking of tea cups.

The most obnoxious bit of trashtalking heard yesterday (Tuesday) morning was a plaintive, though somewhat encouraging, “Come on, Verna!”

Davie Mathie, the 61-year-old local club president, was asked the age range of the competitors.

“From 17 to I don’t know,” he said. “You get to the higher end. Probably around 84.”

There is no drug testing.

“Good thing, too,” quipped club member Wayne Edwards. “Because most of them are on medications.”

While the sport’s demographic skews more Geritol than Red Bull, bowls remains a highly competitive discipline. It continues to hold on to a coveted spot in the Commonwealth Games agenda.

Mr. Mathie helped construct this facility after Victoria was awarded the 1994 Games. The arduous task involved a deep layer of gravel topped by soil, sand and grass seed. The greens are constantly rolled and trimmed to a crew-cut perfection, a coin placed atop the freshly-mown lawn to test firmness.

“Keeping them fast is the key,” he said. “Fast.”

Speed is not always associated with a sport that dates its beginnings in England to at least as far back as the 12th Century, making bowls and archery remnants from the High Middle Ages, which, as it turns out, is an apt description of the maturity of many of the tournament’s players.

The championships opened Monday with a parade of 124 competitors from every province, save Newfoundland, whose top players could not afford to travel across the continent. The athletes, a broad term in describing a contingent including some rather broad players, were led into the club by the Sooke Pipe Band.

Dr. Keith Martin, the local member of Parliament, rolled a ceremonial opening jack. This was followed by a ceremonial opening ball rolled by Audrey Brown of North Vancouver, the widow of Dave Brown, a coach and longtime national team member who died two years ago. Mrs. Brown then sang the national anthem.

Like many others, Mr. Mathie took up the sport through the encouragement of a relative. His inspiration was his grandfather back in his Scottish birthplace of Greenock.

“He’d grab ahold of me by the scruff of the neck,” he said. “I’d be kicking and fighting, saying, ‘I don’t want to play that old man’s game.’ ”

In time, he made peace with the sport. A morning spent on a game of bowls with an afternoon at the bookies, followed by the pub.

The sport rewards those with good eye-to-hand coordination, as well as an ability to read the grass.

The Juan de Fuca surface is composed of creeping bentgrass (Agrostis palustris), which plant scientists acknowledge doesn’t mix well with other grasses, unlike the friendly athletes who play on it

Like golf and curling, bowls is a sociable sport of refined etiquette in which a match begins and ends with handshakes all around.

The first $4 can of Canterbury was cracked open at 10:35 a.m. yesterday, though it should be noted the thirst-quenching patron was a spectator, not a competitor.

A kitchen staffed by volunteers has prepared tasty treats for fans, including $3 sandwiches and a refreshing $2 fruit salad.

The event, which has free admission and lots of free parking, attracted a crowd yesterday numbering in the tens. A match lasting 3 1/2 hours can seem like watching grass grow — because it is watching grass grow. Still, even a fan unfamiliar with the sport will find much to admire in the athletes’ ability to roll biased balls towards a distant jack. It is a marvel to watch a wobbly ball roll precisely through a minefield of earlier shots to a precise spot.

A visitor to the tournament, which has medal rounds and closing ceremonies scheduled for Saturday, can also observe the future of the sport.

Among the younger athletes is Kylah Dittmar, of the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire, a history student at Concordia University who earlier this year was selected one of six princesses making up the court of the parade queen for the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

As well, Saskatchewan’s men’s pairs boasts a combined age of just 40. Alex Scott, 23, graduated earlier this year with a sociology degree from the University of Saskatchewan. The sport has already taken him to events in Hong Kong and Australia.

“Everyone else is way older,” he acknowledged. “We’ve got some good friendships here. Age doesn’t really play a part.”

Before a match, Mr. Scott listens to hip hop music, a genre not known to be favoured by the hip-replacement crowd.

His player partner is Mike Pituley, a 17-year-old high school senior from Regina who works parttime as a pump attendant at a gas station. He finds pregame inspiration in listening to hardcore rock and heavy metal.

“If I turned on my Screamo here,” he said, “I’m sure I’d get a few sour faces.”

The keen pair pulled off an exciting victory yesterday, scoring four points in the final end to nip Alberta by one, a triumph for up-and-comers versus savvy veterans.

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