A Conversation with USBC Open Championships Titlist Bo Goergen

by Gianmarc Manzione 0

USBC Open Championships eagle winner Bo Goergen, whose 2009 series of 862 in that year's Singles event still stands as a tournament record, reached out to BJI on Friday to share his thoughts about recently announced rules changes for the Open Championships starting with the 2019 tournament. Goergen, who also won an eagle in the 2010 tournament when his Northern Lanes Pro Shop team bagged the Team All-Events crown, offered a lot of food for thought on a wide range of related topics, from how to better draw a line between pros and amateurs in the sport today to ways of thinking about transparency regarding the tournament oil pattern and much more. The proprietor of Northern Lanes in Sanford, Mich., began with some thoughts on reaction to the rules changes among some high-end bowlers such as himself, after which he answered a number of follow-up questions.

Goergen: Most of us bowl a lot of tournaments. We can look out over the last 20 years and certain tourneaments have folded. Why have they folded? The number one reason is lack of entries. Why is there a lack of entries? Generally because the rules within that tournament affect somebody. I like to use the Megabuck tournaments out in Vegas as an example, where a lot of us got to meet each other and compete and so forth. Use me as an example. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-40s that a lot of people had ever heard of me. Where did I come from? How was I the talent that I was if I had never had a PBA card? Well, I did. I had a PBA card from 19 to 23 or 24 years old. In fact, I traveled with Jeff Richgels and Marc McDowell. We hung out. But I was from Sioux City, Iowa, and for me to bowl every single tournament wasn’t going to happen because it was eight hours to get to a tournament for me. All the tournaments were in Chicago and St. Louis in our region. But I had success.

In fact, Jeff Richgels laughingly tells the story, a true story, about how he gave me the nickname “The Reverend.” People would ask him, 'Why do you call him The Reverend?' And he’d say, ‘Well, I think he made 14 consecutive finals in a tournament but on Sunday he never finished higher than eighth.' Back then, I liked to consume some alcoholic beverages on Saturday nights, and so I wasn’t very alert the next day. Then the Megabucks came out in the mid 1980s and here is this opportunity to win $200,000 and PBA players are not allowed. I dropped my card, went out there, and the first tournament I finished in the top eight and made 20 grand. In the mid-1980s, I thought, ‘This is the greatest thing since sliced bread.’ Then, when they put the second one out there, and the mini eliminator, man, I made sure my vacation time was wrapped around my bowling tournaments. Then you had the Super Hoinke. That weekend was fabulous.

But, at the end of the day, something happened. A lot of it had to do with no restrictions in brackets, where you could make some extra money on the side while you’re trying to compete for the actual prize fund. I have a scratch tournament that I run in my center, it’s the first weekend in May. This will be the fifth year for that. And I have been battling and fighting all these different rules to allow it to be as strong as it can be. The reason I put this tournament together was because I as a bowler was frustrated with a very successful tournament that was running in Grand Rapids called The Paragon Open. Here’s this guy in a 12-lane house, no room, he’s getting 320 entries, the last tournament he had paid out $20,000 for first. But it was a 1 in 10 ratio; only 32 bowlers cashed. I finished third one year, when top prize was $16,000, and I got fifteen hundred bucks. That disparity between the top end and everyone else was his choice, something he wanted to do. He is not a bowling guy by any stretch but he liked the fact that he was drawing some names from the PBA Tour to come bowl. So we had the PBA Tour guys coming in and bowling, but it was on a tough condition, and as the USBC Open Championship conditions have proven, Belmo and Pete Weber are not just coming in and destroying them. There’s a reason behind that, which I am familiar with, and why I have a couple of eagles and they don’t. But that’s because I have spent a lot of time figuring out how to do it, and Jeff Richgels actually was a huge part of that when he started sharing their team philosophy and their tack and plans and it worked for us.

But, all that being said, here we have changes being made [to the Open Championships] two years ago with the third division, the restriction on the PBA national titlists when they allowed all the PBA players to come in — so I won my two eagles at a time when PBA players were not eligible. Do I have an asterisk next to my eagles? Not really, because for the length of time the tournament was going on, the PBA had not yet been incorporated, and then there were restrictions with the old Classic division and then the elimination of Touring 1 pros. So there have always been restrictions in this national tournament. Why are entries down? Well, you had 180-average guys to 210-average guys who, frankly, had no chance competing against guys like myself. I made a great living for 20-something years playing brackets at the national tournament. It affected me personally, in my pocketbook, when this rule came in. But, at the end of the day, I know that it’s the right thing to do to salvage this tournament.

The reason for the tournament going to Reno — was I a big fan of it? Not really. I really enjoyed — and I am coming on my 40th tournament here in Syracuse this year; I’ll be getting a 40-year plaque, so I’m old — so I enjoyed the travel all across the country. But I also had my own bowling center, and I know what happened in 2008 when the economy crashed. It cost me a quarter-of-a-million dollars. So it’s a business decision to go to a stadium that’s already built rather than building 48 lanes in a convention center somewhere else just because they’ve always done that. It just isn’t financially prudent. So, I understand that part. So, what did I do as a bowler? Well, I decided to grab a rental car and see what Reno has to offer, and surrounding areas. But because Reno is so convenient — you can fly in there, you can get a free shuttle to the Tri-Properties, you can walk your bags to the facility and you’re good to go the rest of the time you’re there — you did have to pass that bus stop where there were homeless people bothering you for money and it wasn’t pleasant, but the last time I was there they got rid of that and I thought it was a great experience. Vegas attracts people because of the casino; everywhere we went, if there was a casino, that was the attraction for those going to the event as something to do on the side when you have a large group of people that use the tournament as a fun time with a couple of teammates they bowl league with.

So, the numbers went down. Did some people quit simply because it kept going back to Reno? I’m sure. But, let’s face reality. The majority of the bowlers are my age. At 50, 60, and 70 years old, they’re just going to quit. So, the numbers are going to go down because there is a huge gap across the country between 18 and 26 years old that we lose every year because a high-school student is going into college or going into the work force or buying a home and starting a family. They don’t have that discretionary dollar to continue bowling in leagues. So this huge number of 3,600 bowlers the college rule is going to affect in 2019, 90 percent of those bowlers aren’t going to bowl the tournament anyway because it’s expensive for a collegiate bowler who is having trouble surviving in college as it is. People are just going crazy on social media about this — seriously though, how many of these kids actually bowled the tournament last year? I’ll bet it wasn’t 300.

Bo Goergen (right) at the 2017 Bowlers Journal Championships with Justin Neiman.

BJI: Chad Murphy said 114 college players bowled the Open Championships last year.

Goergen: And that number needs to be out there because — let’s just use Jeff Richgels as an example — he won’t get off this point that a 140-average collegiate bowler is the same as a PBA Regional titlist. Look, I don’t agree with that either. But, at some point, in order to stop the stacking of teams, which is happening, there has to be a defined line that is drawn somewhere in the sand or you’re going to lose bowlers because they cannot compete. So, let’s step back a second. I kept using Reno as an example, but the reality of it is something I’m sure the USBC’s own surveys are showing them, which is that the 181 to 210-average guy was leaving the tournament more than anybody else because they cannot compete, and that is a true statement. Now, those few instances — let’s take Doug Kent as an example — he can’t bowl with [his son] Jakob Kent. That would suck if my son falls into that category, and I understand that. That’s a decision I’ll make when it comes. I’ll probably have dropped my card by then because I’ll be 61 anyway, or 62. If I get a chance to bowl with my son at the national tournament, for him to experience all that I have experienced at the tournament all these years? That will be a higher priority than continuing to try to win an eagle, as I do today. So, no, I don’t believe a college player should be lumped in with a PBA Regional player, but do I believe that some of them do? Absolutely.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Pete Barta, Adam’s older brother, but he’s got this National Amateur Bowlers Ranking system [NABR]. I don’t know how he does it, but he goes around and follows the news on amateur tournaments around the country. With high finishes, they get X amount of points. He’s got a points system on those bowlers who bowl at the amateur level. I think that can be done, with the right software, for collegiate bowlers as well.  We need to identify these guys, either by placement finish or money earned or a combination of both throughout the country. And here’s the greatest example I can give you, and why Chad’s doing this, because he’s a bowler. He understands. I am a PBA card member. I never bowled on the regular tour on the national level; I was a part-timer my entire career because I have a business and I have a family and I don’t enjoy traveling to chase that dream. Could I have ever been in the top 10? There wasn’t enough money; I would have had to be in the top 10 to make it worth giving up my business and do it full-time. But that said, look at their team — you have Adam Barta, Mike Rose Jr., and Brian Waliczek, and Scott Pohl, who all four individually would be in the top 50 money earners on the PBA Tour if they were able to take their amateur winnings and make it count. And they get to bowl together. And not only do they get to bowl together according to the rules as they are written, they get to bring a national titlist on their team as well. Let’s call Jeff Richgels out for a minute and now it’s, ‘Well, you’re saying I can’t bowl with my friends?’ Well, were you friends when you started to put the team together to chase those titles? Mike Shady is a great guy, but he lives in Erie, Pennsylvania. Jeff Richgels and Marc McDowell live in Madison [Wis.]. Steve Richter lives in Sheboygan [Wis.]. They’re not having lunch together. They weren’t best buds when they started. Are they now, after winning three or four titles? Well, of course. But they weren’t best buds when they started. They had one mission, and that was to stack a team and win an eagle.

Then there's the issue with the transparency with the lane patterns used; they stopped disclosing the lane pattern. Where do I stand on that? Well, I remember back in the day on the PBA Tour, we did not know what the pattern was. I prefer it to be not transparent. I think it was part of the reason I won a Team All-Events banner, because I was able to download the pattern, put it in my machine, practice on it for a couple of months because we all went later in the tournament. Was I using the same oil, the same cleaners, was I bowling on the same lane surface? Generally, no. It was still speculative. But when you understand bowling and ball motion as well as a lot of guys on my team do, we had an expectation that we were close to and it was easier to decide what balls to bring when you’re traveling across the country. (Syracuse is drivable for me, so I can bring 12 balls if I want to, and I can sit in the stands the night before and get an idea and see what people are throwing and then narrow down my choices.) But what about the average Joe that doesn’t have a lane machine or isn’t a proprietor? I understand the fairness of it all. That makes sense to me even though it hurts me personally; it levels the playing field a little bit.

Then there’s the PBA 60 rule. I understand why they came up with 60 because if they didn’t then you would have Pete Weber and Walter Ray [Williams Jr.] bowling together, or Parker Bohn and Amleto [Monacelli] bowling together, and [Norm] Duke, and they’re winning titles still on the young man’s tour in their 50s. What an uproar that would be. I think at the end of the day — John Gaines reached out to me via private messenger and we were trading some ideas — maybe a moratorium on time may be better than the age of 60. I don’t know. I think maybe more of a moratorium needs to be in place versus this 60-year age level.

BJI: Some PBA titlists have expressed that guys who won their PBA Tour titles 25 or 30 years ago but today don’t bowl nearly as much as they did back then and are not the kind of competitive threat that they once were, they don’t think they should be placed in the same competitive bucket as a Bill O’Neill or a Jason Belmonte at this late stage in their careers.

Goergen: I agree that maybe the Mike Shadys and Marc McDowells of the world should not be considered in the same bucket as Jason Belmonte, but at the end of the day, they’re still pretty accomplished, aren’t they? They won some eagles. Mike Shady went 10 years in a row without shooting under 1900. So, to use that argument that it’s not fair because he hasn’t won a PBA Tour title in however long, but yet he’s dominating the USBC Open Championships — well, which is it? So, I understand the argument. I agree with the argument. But at the end of the day, he is having a lot of success in that forum, to the point where we have to ask, ‘Who are we trying to appease?’ The majority of bowlers are not the top elite, the top one-half of one percent that’s doing all the yelling. That’s me. I could complain, too. But maybe it’s just the proprietor in me, and the tournament director in me. I want all the tournaments to have the most success, whether it be entries, or just people had a great time and they want to come back because they had a great experience, you know, on the customer service side of that. But, it’s tough. It’s just a tough avenue, because no matter how you set up your rules, somebody is affected by it. Like this sandbagging issue that I have decided to take a stand on. Guys are manipulating their averages in leagues to be professional sandbaggers for the almighty dollar. That’s where the real crux of all this is, it’s the almighty dollar affecting people’s decisions on what’s going on.

BJI: Chad Murphy has acknowledged that some rules changes have affected folks who were making a good deal of brackets money at the USBC Open Championships, and were winning that money against people who simply were not as good as they were.

Goergen: Correct. Absolutely. I mean, it was a part-time job. My accountant would just gasp. I was averaging $7,000 for 10 years straight. And I would say, ‘Hey, that’s just how the rules are.’ I was in that mode. That’s just how the rules are. I am not doing anything against the rules. Did I try to go stack some teams? Well, after 27 years I was like, ‘You know, I’ve been good enough, but what am I missing? Oh, look at all these stacked teams.’ So, I went out and tried to get the best team I possibly could, but I didn’t realize I needed the best 10 guys I possibly could get to help break open the pattern. I had John Forst on my team at that time; he’s basically the one who introduced us to breaking down the lane pattern. Let’s use 2009, the year I shot my monster score; my team was third in Team All-Events that year. I lose two bowlers off of that team, pick up two other bowlers, and the next year we win Team All-Events in Reno. I picked up Dan MacLelland and J.R. Raymond. Now, those two actually bowled in my center when they were bowling college at Saginaw Valley State, so it wasn’t as if I was calling all over the country trying to find superstars. I basically grabbed Dan MacLelland under my wing and helped him. We changed his grip when he moved here and practiced a lot with us. Now, the following year — I think it was the following year — Dan went and got his card so we couldn’t bowl together in Doubles. We were Doubles partners for the two previous years. So, we weren’t bowling doubles but we were bowling on the same pair, and Dan shot 770 and I had 750. We would have broken the all-time record if we would have been Doubles partners that year. But, in any event, it happens, people try to do it, and to see the comments on Facebook that we should just allow anyone to bowl with whoever they want to bowl with — really? You are going to lose more bowlers than you could imagine if you do that.

BJI: What is your answer to those top-end bowlers who now are saying they are not sure if the Open Championships is as much about crowning national champions today as it may be about attracting the greatest number of people to come out and have the Open Championships experience?

Goergen: Obviously, the goal is to do both.

BJI: It is possible to do both?

Goergen: I think it’s going to be more of a struggle today than it was in the mid-1990s, when Reno was built and you had 17,000 teams. That’s just the nature of our industry. It’s a challenge to USBC just as it is a challenge to a local proprietor like me getting people to come to my nine-pin no-tap tournament. How attractive can I make this to get consumers to come spend some money at my facility? So, that argument is a tough one because the goal is to do both. As a previous champion that still feels competitive, I’m still trying for that eagle. And knowing my spirit, I will probably be trying to win that eagle until I collect my 50th [plaque for number of years bowling the Open Championships]. My body is starting to break down, I’ve got issues, I’ve got a heart issue now, but for the elite bowler, I think there is still that idea of bowling for the eagle and the reputation that comes with it. I am staring at my eagle as we talk, and I am extremely proud of that. Somebody started a Facebook post asking if you have an eagle and a PBA title, which means more to you? I don’t have a national PBA title but I have a regional title, and my eagle is more special to me than that regional title. How would I feel if I had a national PBA title? I don’t know. I have never been there. I still think it might be, because what I did in 2009, we had almost 18,000 teams bowl the tournament that year. So, 80,000 bowlers bowled; it was the largest tournament ever. Now, the top 25 to 50 bowlers in the world weren’t eligible. But professional bowlers make a choice to bowl for a living, and the USBC tournament is open to every card member and is designed for the amateur side. The problem is that there’s always been a prize fund involved with this. So that skews the amateur side of it.

BJI: Do you agree that the line between a professional and an amateur in today’s sport is perhaps blurrier now than ever before?

Goergen: Absolutely. I agree with that one-hundred-and-ten percent. I have said that all along. Now, personally, I chose to not become a card member of the PBA during my most productive years physically because the Megabuck tournaments were more appealing to me. I would take two weeks off a year and try to make a couple hundred thousand dollars. I couldn’t have done that in 36 weeks out on the PBA Tour, more than likely, the way the prize funds were. That was the rationale I used personally. There has to be a way to determine that a bowler who is not a PBA member but makes X amount of dollars in X amount of time now is deemed a ‘professional.’ Or you can use this points system I mentioned with Pete Barta, however it might be done, good, bad or indifferent. Get the software in place so that every tournament director can implement and input into the software each bowler, who they are, where they finished, how much money did they make — and include the brackets and pots. It can’t be that difficult to put a spreadsheet software together for that. Then have a calculation made for a points system. It’s done on the PBA Tour; it can be done on a national level for amateurs. And that’s how we can start defining that line a lot more clearly, in my opinion.

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