Havin’ a bowl | AspenTimes.com

Havin’ a bowl

To some people somewhere, lawn bowling is undoubtedly an art, a passion, a lifestyle. But at Aspen Highlands, it might just be an excuse to get out and have a few beers at the end of the day.

Envisioning serious, perhaps even uniformed lawn bowlers, I attended the opening night of the lawn bowlers league at Aspen Highlands this week. It was not what I expected.

Behind Iguana’s Bar and Grill at the Highlands base, a large group of competitors – mostly 20- and 30-year-olds – hurled lawn balls with one hand, and sipped cold beer from large mugs with the other.

This was just the warm-up.

New to the league this year were marked alleys, polished balls, official lawn-bowling mats and measuring tape. But the real crux of the event seemed to be the beer tables – sitting at the ends of each alley – and the roaming cocktail waitresses. By the end of the match, the tables were full of empty bottles and glasses.

After the hour-long warm-up, the league commissioner and general manager of Iguana’s, Jeff Olson, called everybody in for a few announcements before the games began.

Olson welcomed the players, discussed some of the rules, and reminded everyone that the lanes and balls were available for practice every night except competition night. He also asked that everyone keep track of the balls when practicing. Apparently, two jack balls – the focal point of the game – had been missing since the lanes opened for practice a few weeks ago.

After the announcements, the eight teams, mostly barefoot, took to the alleys.

Four alleys line the manicured greens at the back door of Iguana’s, which was perfect since eight teams had checked in by the time the games began. Two four-man teams faced off against each other in each alley.

The competition began with a team hurling a white ball, called the jack, out toward the center of the alley. This is commonly referred to as – really, I promise – the jack-off.

Then, as in boccie ball, the team that has the most lawn balls closest to the jack wins the round. Several rounds are played in each competition. The traditional match is comprised of 21 rounds, but the norm in the Highlands league is time rounds. On Monday, the rounds lasted an hour.

The balls, or bowls, are like bowling balls, except they’re about half the size and lopsided. One side of the ball is weighted more heavily than the other, so the ball generates a lot of spin when delivered.

A lawn history

Lawn bowling began in Europe in the 14th century and gradually spread in popularity. The game’s American roots go back to the Revolutionary War. The game arrived with the English, but didn’t become popular until after the dust of the war had settled – nobody wanted to play a game associated with the English. Eventually, however, “bowling on the green” spread from coast to coast, and also became popular in Canada.

In certain parts of the world, like Australia and Canada, the game is heavily based in tradition. Like baseball, the uniforms are the signature of every team. In Australia, the rules of attire are white or tan shoes along with a hat, tie, blazer and slacks.

At Highlands, the men wear T-shirts, Hawaiian shirts or no shirts, and shorts. The women wear tank tops, and skirts or shorts. Neither wear shoes and both traditionally carry a large beer or margarita while competing.

An easy vibe

During the opening round Monday, I could almost (but not quite) feel the competitive tension. The venue was nearly silent, aside from the sound of laughter and drink orders. The sound of colliding lawn balls practically filled the air.

“The whole vibe that Highlands has, you can see why everyone’s having fun,” said competitor Seth Hollar of Aspen Highlands.

Last year, Hollar’s team placed second, and they were awarded a $250 tab at Iguana’s. Their victory was sealed when the opposition failed to show up.

Last year’s winners happened to be competing in the lane next to Hollar’s team. Sammy Sandall, a member of that winning team, has lawn bowling in his blood. A New Zealander who’s lived in Aspen for a couple years, Sandall feels lawn bowling connects him to his homeland.

“My grandfather was a really good player, so it’s a bit of home,” Sandall said.

For Sandall’s teammate, Jono Mason, the league is just a great way to relax and take a load off after a day of work.

“It’s a beautiful place here in the evenings,” Mason said, “it’s nice to have a couple drinks and wind down in the evening.”

But some teams, like Patagonian Toothfish, are aiming to knock off last year’s best team.

“We’re not going to lay down for the Kiwis this year,” joked Jeff Hanle, a Patagonian Toothfish member who works for the Aspen Ski Company.

Hanle went on to tell me about how Sandall, Mason and the rest of the New Zealand team showed up for a match last year dressed in white suits – a sign of respect for the tradition of the game. They were also toting martini shakers – a sign of respect for the Aspen Highlands league.

As of Monday, there was room for four additional teams. The league runs through mid-September and the price of admission is $20 per person for the entire summer.

Perhaps most importantly, Iguana’s offers 20 percent discounts on drinks during matches.

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com

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