LAS VEGAS - The start of the 2021 United States Bowling Congress Open Championships meant far more than just the continuation of some of the sport's most cherished traditions, and nearly 500 bowlers helped mark the return of the world's largest participatory sporting event.
The 98 teams that participated throughout the day Saturday at the South Point Bowling Plaza were the first of more than 7,700 scheduled to compete during the 79-day run of the storied event, which is the tournament's 117th edition.
The USBC Open Championships last was held in 2019, also at South Point, and it had been more than 660 days since a ball rolled down the championship lanes.
The first day of competition featured four team squads, and the final squad of the day kicked off with a formal opening ceremony. The festivities included two tournament staples - the crowning of Joe Bowler and the Mass Ball Shot ceremony.
The 2021 Open Championships is the event's fifth trip to Las Vegas and third stop at South Point, where it was held in 2017 and 2019. Nearby Cashman Center played host in 1986 and 2009.
For the first time in history, the tournament will be held across two venues. All team competition will take place at the Bowling Plaza, and doubles/singles squads will be held at the nearby South Point Bowling Center, also part of the vast South Point campus.
The event will run daily until July 18 and bring more than 38,000 bowlers, in three average-based divisions, to South Point.
One lucky participant on the evening squad, Phoenix's Will Standefer, randomly was selected as this year's "Joe Bowler," a tradition that dates to 1951 and earned him the responsibility of presiding over the opening ceremony and throwing out the ceremonial first ball of the tournament.
His Open Championships career got off to a great start, as he knocked down eight pins to formally kick off the 2021 competition. Tournament folklore states that Joe Bowler's shot in the spotlight sets the scoring pace for the whole event.
"It definitely was an interesting experience, we'll put it that way," said Standefer, who made his Open Championships debut. "It wasn't expected, but it was a lot of fun."
Standefer finished his first tournament set with 557 and helped Phoenician 2 to games of 965, 787 and 797 for a 2,549 total, which is seventh in Standard Team.
The evening also included encouraging words from Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson, South Point Director of Bowling Operations Mike Monyak and USBC Executive Director Chad Murphy.
Following the fun and final squad of competition, the 2021 Open Championships had its first official leaders in three average-based divisions.
In the Regular Division (combined averages of 876 and above), Team Ramrod of Indianapolis set the bar with games of 1,069, 1,010 and 984 for a 3,063 total.
Steve Harman, who made the USBC Masters TV show in Las Vegas in 2009, led the team with a 662 series and was followed by Daniel Freeman (638), Brian Walker (633), Professional Bowlers Association Tour champion Matt Sanders (577) and Mark Schoch (553).
A pair of teams representing McDonough, Georgia, topped the standings in the Standard Division (combined averages of 776-875) and Classified Division (combined averages of 775 and below).
Cancer Sucks 2 rolled games of 819, 975 and 974 to lead the Standard Team race with a 2,768 total.
Bryan Pope led the way with a 587 set and was joined by Mark Thomason (583), Michael Johnson (539), Timothy Cude (531) and Troy Mosel (528).
Cancer Sucks 4 leads Classified Team with 2,493, which came on games of 765, 852 and 876.
Elizabeth Pope contributed a 601 series and was followed by Nelson Tellames (528), Vickie Thomason (486), Karen Fleury (469) and Lori Frye (409).
Competition at the 2021 Open Championships resumes Sunday morning with the first doubles and singles squad of the year. Squads will run daily from 7 a.m. until approximately midnight.
With the move of doubles and singles to the South Point Bowling Center, the Bowlers Journal Championships presented by USBC, a side event that allows bowlers to enjoy additional competition while in the host city, is being held at The Orleans Bowling Center, about 8 miles away.
Among the participants at the 2021 Open Championships will be 25 bowlers competing for the 50th time, two bowling for the 60th time and one making his 65th appearance.
The first two 50-year bowlers will be recognized on the lanes Sunday, while Jamie Brooks of McKinney, Texas, a 1973 Regular Doubles champion, is 381 pins away from becoming the 24th member of the elite 100,000-Pin Club. Brooks will hit the lanes Sunday afternoon.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 tournament, which was scheduled to be held at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada. It was the first time since World War II the tournament was not held.
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