Bowling in the time of COVID: BLBC 2020 Singles and Pairs Tournaments

This has certainly been a year to remember—or forget. And it ain’t over yet. The country is still in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century, hurricanes and windstorms have pounded the Gulf coast and Iowa, and wildfires have laid deadly waste to vast swathes of the west, cloaking the skies with lung-threatening ash. And that’s just the natural disasters. Socially, our psyches have been shaken by the ongoing lockdowns and restrictions as well as the racial injustice exemplified in the shootings of Black Americans at the hands of the police. Some of the countervailing protests have also ended in violence. Not to mention the election, now finally underway, after more twists and turns than a Stephen King novel, but equally scary with the possibility of even further polarization of the nation as ballots are counted and recounted (if the Postal Service is even allowed to deliver them) and scenarios of armed “militias” disputing results they oppose.

Against that setting, organizing a lawn bowling tournament is either an act of trivialization or an attempt to find some minimal normalcy in a world gone astray. I’d prefer to think it was the latter.

A bit of background: with the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the Berkeley Lawn Bowling Club (BLBC) closed its green ahead of the official lockdown. Some weeks later, as a few outdoor activities were beginning to be allowed, we applied to the City’s Health Department for a limited re-opening, which they granted under the strict conditions laid out in Protocols developed by the Club’s Board (see box for examples of the restrictions).

The result was remarkably like lawn bowls. It  was a definite boost to the psyche to be back in the open—prior to the choking air mentioned above. In fact, it was so like lawn bowls that before too long the cry went up: “Let’s have a tournament!” In the absence of our regular Tournament Director, Andy Vevers, who had withdrawn for personal and work-related reasons, yours truly offered to organize the 2020 Singles Tournament on a strictly one-off basis, having no desire to take on the job permanently. Spoiler alert—his rubber arm was soon twisted to set up a Pairs Tournament later.

Seventeen bowlers signed up for the event, which was organized into an initial round robin consisting of three groups of  four players and one group with five. The winners of each group proceeded to an elimination round of semifinals and final, with a playoff for 3rd and 4th place. In the round robin phase, games were to 18 points or to 1 hour 50 minutes, so as to remain within the COVID protocol of a maximum of two hours on the green. And games were scheduled, over a roughly two-week period, in an ad hoc manner by the opponents themselves through the “master scheduler” rather than being stipulated by the TD. On the finals day, with the green being reserved for the tournament only, we were able to play to the traditional 21 points for singles. The end result? Gareth Cole, Frankie Napoli, Rob Hoey, and Hugo Deaux won their respective round robin sections. The semifinals matched Gareth against Hugo and Rob against Frankie, with Gareth and Frankie winning through to the final. In a spirited match of some really high-quality bowling, Frankie prevailed to become the BLBC 2020 Singles Champion. Overheard from Gareth at one point in the game: “It’s not that I’m playing badly—it’s that he’s playing better.” The playoff game saw Hugo defeat Rob to take 3rd place.

As hinted above, the event went so smoothly and was enjoyed by all participants, that the finals were not over before the idea of a Pairs Tournament was being spoken of.

With the experience of the Singles event behind us, the Pairs involved a broadly similar format. Twenty bowlers participated, allowing 10 teams, divided into two groups of five for the round robin phase. The top two teams in each section would proceed to the finals. The major difference was that since Skips and Leads were to be matched randomly—bowlers signed up individually, not as a pre-set team—an ad hoc six-person Handicap Committee was established to assign players to the Skip or Lead position and to set a handicap number that would, in principle, help level the playing field. The resulting handicap numbers were based on the average of the handicaps assigned by the six members of the committee.

For a change, fortune smiled on us and the air cleared, allowing the round robin phase to proceed with time to spare. Since matches were arranged ad hoc and not on a pre-established timetable, scheduling the times when four bowlers could get together proved trickier than the two-bowler set up for singles, but was managed with an extension of the originally planned date for the finals. The teams of Rob Hoey/Arthur Stuart and Daniel Gorelick/Cris Benton placed first and second in Group 1, with Hugo Deaux/Leslie Engler and Jim Corr/Ian Cameron likewise in Group 2, setting the stage for a very competitive final round.

The semifinals and finals were played to 18 ends with no time limit. After a runaway start by Hugo & Leslie in their match against Jim & Ian, the game tightened sharply. However, on the 16th end, ahead 19-17, but with Jim holding shot, Hugo came through with a wicking bowl that took out the shot bowl and rolled in for 4, putting the game not quite out of reach technically, but enough to ensure a final score of 23-20. The other semi was equally hard fought and was a one-point game with two ends left. Daniel & Cris took both the remaining ends for a 20-15 victory.

In the final, Hugo & Leslie were pretty dominant running up a win of 19-12 over Daniel and Cris. Jim & Ian won the 3rd/4th place playoff against Rob & Arthur, with Jim’s final bowl enough to ensure an 18-16 victory.

So, despite the social and environmental challenges of an unprecedented year, we pulled off the two events and 2020 will generate at least some positive memories for BLBC members. Congratulations to our 2020 Champions: Frankie Napoli in Singles and Hugo Deaux and Leslie Engler in Pairs. This is Hugo’s fourth Club pairs win in four years, with three different partners, quite a feat.