'The bowling green'

Published: Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The bowling green
128-member club plays sport of kings and queens

by Sue Dremann

There aren't many sports that could put an invasion by the Spanish Armada on hold, but lawn bowling once did just that.

Bill Ranney, left, and Ken Brady react to a point-changing bowl during the Mixed Draw Pairs tournament in April.

As the dreaded Spanish fleet was spotted amassing off the English coast in 1588, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh were in the seventh round of an intense lawn bowling match. Drake refused to leave until he'd finished the game - then he went and defeated the Armada. The well-documented story is perhaps the most famous in a litany of lore surrounding lawn bowling, the so-called "Sport of Kings."

Once a game that enthralled kings and queens and robust men, lawn bowling is now mainly played by older folks, said Grace Griffiths, hospitality chair for the Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club, a 128-member club playing regularly at the lawn bowling green beside Gamble Garden on Embarcadero Road.

"As a kid in Britain, I'd say 'Let's go watch the old wrinklies bowl,' and now I've become one of them," Griffiths said, her eyes twinkling. A retired midwife, she comes out to the lawn bowling club every chance she gets, when she isn't playing tennis"

Jean Wren tallies the scores as Don Hughes gathers the bowls together during a casual Thursday afternoon game.

Fred Hawley bowls during the Pizza Bowl on a sunny Wednesday evening. Every Wednesday evening in the summer, club members chip in for pizza or chicken after their games.

Bud Teasdale, left, greets fellow Santa Cruz lawn bowlers Harry Schoenfeld and Bill Ranney before the Mixed Pairs tournament in April.

Bowlers Charles Bailey and Ed Walker decide which bowl is closest to the jack, the small white ball, during the Mixed Paris tournament.

Lawn Bowls Club members organize the scoreboard before playing an informal game one Wednesday evening. Each member has a personalized name tag that they attach to the scoreboard according to their position in the game.

Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club members sit down for pizza, salad, wine and beer after their Wednesday evening Pizza Bowl.

At the Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club, members play the game in the tradition of Henry VIII, but under less trying circumstances than did Drake. Lawn bowling is easy to play but can be as challenging as chess, according to Palo Alto club president Terry Hogan.

Stephen Schoenfeld of the Santa Clara Lawn Bowls Club rolls his red bowl during the Friendship Game in April.

Team members each take turns rolling flattened "bowls" the size of fattened Kaiser rolls on their edge. The bowls spin 120 feet down the green toward a "jack," or white ball, clicking as they knock into each other, jostling for the closest position. The goal is to get a bowl closest to the jack and win a point at the end of a round.

Shaved as close as a buzz cut and as smooth as velvet, the green, designed by John McLaren (who also designed Golden Gate Park), was created as a WPA project in 1933. The lawn adds character to the game, determining a bowl's speed: slower when moist, faster when dry, Hogan said.

The pace is leisurely, with plenty of time for conversation and developing friendships. There are plenty of social opportunities - "pizza night" on Wednesdays, baked in the clubhouse's full kitchen; and "Chicken Bowl" events, with barbecue often cooked by Hogan. Someone may even strike up a tune on the upright piano.

Don Hughes, a member with the Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club for about three years, wears a pair of shoes worn in from bowling during a weekly draw game.

People come from all walks of life, from doctors to insurance salesmen, and range in age from 12 to 85. Although membership is desired, one doesn't have to be a member to play, Hogan said.

Most members treat their bowls with care, wrapping them in socks and toting them in bowl-specific cases. Since there are no American manufacturers, bowlers must order their bowls from England, Australia and New Zealand.

For tournaments, players don "dress whites." Tournaments span from the local level to national championships. There is even an annual match with Berkeley, patterned after the Stanford football "Big Game." The winning team takes home "The Meat Axe," a cleaver mounted on a plaque.

John Hickson, former Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club president and current city liaison, digs out patches of an invasive grass from the all-Bermuda grass green. Members of the club regularly volunteer their time to help the city of Palo Alto maintain the grounds.

The Palo Alto club won it last year. The ax is prominently displayed in the clubhouse, where tournament boards hold five decades of bronze name plates, memorializing Palo Alto's winners of the "Sport of Kings."





Palo Alto Online
© 2000 Palo Alto Online.