INDIANAPOLIS - Three-time defending champion Jason Belmonte knew he was guaranteed a spot in the double-elimination bracket at the 2016 United States Bowling Congress Masters, but he made sure to remain focused and aggressive throughout qualifying this week at Woodland Bowl.
His game plan was strategic and familiar, and he got progressively better during each round of qualifying, eventually posting the highest five-game set of the week to catapult himself to the top of the standings with a 15-game total of 3,483, a 232.2 average.
The 2016 USBC Masters features a total prize fund of $295,000 and is a major event on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour. The stepladder finals will be broadcast live on ESPN on Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern, with $50,000 and the coveted Masters trophy going to the winner.
Canada's Dan MacLelland finished qualifying in second place with a 3,425 total and was followed by Tom Daugherty of Riverview, Florida (3,391), Tom Smallwood of Saginaw, Michigan (3,347) and 19-year-old recent PBA Tour champion Anthony Simonsen of Princeton, Texas (3,341).
All competitors this week bowled 15 games of qualifying, before a cut was made to the top 63, who will join Belmonte in the double-elimination match-play bracket.
Missy Parkin of Laguna Hills, California, the 2011 USBC Queens champion, earned the final spot in match play with a 3,120 total, a 208 average, and she will take on Belmonte in the opening round Friday at 9 a.m. Eastern.
Belmonte's 1,256 block Thursday included one of the week's 11 perfect games and helped the three-time reigning PBA Player of the Year outdistance the 417-player field.
"I think the burn squad typically favors the guys who are able to get farther left, and it's no secret that's my A game, so it was nice to be able to take advantage of that today," said Belmonte, who also earned the No. 1 seed for his first title defense in 2014. "But, what I really wanted for today was to be focused and execute well, especially early in the games. That will be very important in match play."
Since 2013, Belmonte has bowled more than two dozen matches at the Masters, and he knows that given the level of talent it takes to make the top 64, seeding almost is irrelevant. His opponent could be a hall of famer or an up-and-comer, and what's important is having a strategy for each match and each pair of lanes.
Being able to bowl qualifying at Woodland Bowl this week allowed Belmonte to get a feel for the center and the 39-foot oil pattern as well as figure out which equipment would go through the pins the right way for him.
"I wanted to make the most of the 15 games and not take the opportunity for granted," said Belmonte, who has 12 PBA Tour titles, including five majors. "I had a chance to try some different balls, but I also wanted to get into a good place mentally. If I can get into the right mind frame and keep that competitive vibe, I think I'm a tough opponent to beat."
The last person to defeat Belmonte at the Masters was AJ Johnson of Oswego, Illinois, in the match to determine the top seed for TV at the 2015 event in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but the Australian two-hander got redemption with a 202-157 win in the championship match.
The victory made Belmonte the first bowler in history to claim three consecutive Masters titles, and he joined USBC and PBA Hall of Famer Mike Aulby as the event's only three-time winners. In 2014, Belmonte became the first bowler since 1965 to successfully defend his Masters crown.
All qualifying and match play rounds of the Masters are being covered live on Xtra Frame, the PBA's online bowling channel. For subscription information, visit pba.com.