Over the years, the release of the lane patterns for the USBC Open Championships had become a hotly anticipated aspect of the buildup to the tournament, but this year the USBC decided to withhold that information until after the tournament's conclusion. On Tuesday, in a video featuring 18-time PBA Tour champion Chris Barnes that can be viewed here, USBC released details about the patterns used at the 2017 USBC Open Championships. USBC Executive Director Chad Murphy acknowledges that the move provoked “strong opinions about whether this is actually going backwards,” but he expressed to BJI in the below interview, which was conducted earlier today with BJI Editor Gianmarc Manzione, that “It’s moving us forward in a lot of ways.” Here is much more of what Murphy had to say on the topic:
BJI: What was the thinking behind the decision to delay releasing information about the Open Championships lane patterns this year until after the tournament’s conclusion?
CM: The biggest reason was just leveling the playing field. There are a lot of folks who practice on the patterns at home where they have high-dollar lane machines, and other places that don’t. That turns into an advantage when you get to the Championships. A lot of folks will have tuned in their equipment and their surfaces before they walk into the building, and that also makes the scores higher. One of the things we’ve tried to do over the last couple of years is create a level playing field and an environment that is worthy of a national championship. We felt that by removing the pattern announcement, the field is a little more level and it’s a better experience for the entire field.
BJI: And did this decision go hand-in-hand with the decision to cease the amount of live streaming that had been going on at the tournament in prior years?
CM: It did. Our folks did a good job of creating additional publicity for the event this year by creating short highlight videos, and more of them, to increase storytelling. So, there was an ancillary improvement there. Our folks had more time to tell great stories about the event instead of sitting in a live-streaming booth. But yes, the two decisions did go hand-in-hand.
BJI: So what is your take-away from this year’s experiment with delaying information about the pattern until after the tournament, and what, if anything, will you do differently on this matter in future years?
CM: This fall, we’ll go back and take a look at what we think worked, and what didn’t. We’ll suggest changes to our leadership for the 2019 tournament, but 2018 will run very similarly. But specific to the lane pattern question, if you really look at it, we made the patterns easier, and the winning score in the Team event was the lowest since 1990. So, it did have an impact on the scoring at the Championships. That’s an easy thing to see, that it had an impact. There are all kinds of things that can come from that, but I wouldn’t want to speculate at this point. We feel like it was a success. We’ll be moving forward in a similar manner in the future.
BJI: Some on social networks have made a baseball analogy, suggesting that a pitcher doesn’t tell a hitter what pitch is coming next, or in football a quarterback doesn’t telegraph the next play, because professional athletes—and in the case of the Open Championships, primarily amateurs—are testing their abilities anytime they compete. Do you think those are appropriate analogies in this context?
CM: I think it’s tough to compare sports, but I would agree with those analogies. We’re making strides to emphasize the bowler’s ability to read and inform himself or herself of what’s on the lane and then move accordingly, rather than having it baked in beforehand. Since the inception of announcing patterns, you can pretty much choose what tournament you’re going to bowl based on the patterns that you know you bowl well on, and in some cases people have stopped wanting to practice on patterns that they have less skill on. Everybody always wants to compare bowling to golf, and one of the great things about bowling is you can’t see the sand traps, but then all these patterns get thrown into the marketplace and give people a look at the sand traps before they even throw a shot. So, some of those traditional things have gone away, but for us, getting back to shot-making and the adjustments a bowler makes is important, and it’s one of the reasons why we’ve made this decision.
BJI: On the other side of the coin, some people suggest that bowlers on staff with ball companies still have an advantage through information they may receive from ball reps who go to the event, and if anyone wants to bowl well at the tournament, they just need to talk with one of those players about what they saw and how they played the lanes. Does that still give some players an advantage over others in the field even if the lane pattern information has been withheld?
CM: I don’t think so, because until you actually throw the ball down the lane, that’s when you start reading it. There’s always going to be information that comes and goes, but we’re not saying that information won’t get traded, we’re saying that we’re not going to enable it. I think that’s the difference. This tournament’s been going on for 115 years, and [trading information] has always been part of it. That’s not within our control, but what is within our control is not enabling it by handing out the patterns and allowing people to practice on them at home and in some of the better training facilities around the country. We feel like that is certainly an unfair advantage and the pros of doing this outweigh the cons. It’s different. It’s changed. People have strong opinions about whether this is actually going backwards. I would tell you it’s moving us forward in a lot of ways. It was another tool to be able to control the scoring. I mean, 3266 wins the Team event, lowest score since 1990, and the patterns, in Team as well as in Doubles and Singles, were easier. We’ve just shown the marketplace that this is something that impacts the scoring at any tournament but, for sure, these Championships.
BJI: So you believe that withholding information about the patterns until after the tournament’s conclusion does, in a measurable way, have an impact on the scoring pace?
CM: We believe it does, yes. And we believe the data would support that.
BJI: But can the value of being able to practice on the pattern beforehand be a little overrated given that you would be practicing on it at a different center that has completely different topography and a different climate than the actual tournament site, where bowlers will be competing on a relatively pristine lane surface and in a completely different climate? Aren’t there a lot of other variables that play into this?
CM: Good question. The patterns, and the way they’re constructed today, and have been for the last decade or so, all create tendencies. They’re all designed so that you will start on a certain part of the lane and then the pattern migrates to a certain part of the lane. That is something you will get from practicing on it. You will know which balls to use, and which pin placements, what surface adjustments are probably needed. Yes, the topography will be different, but the tendencies of the patterns will be knowable by practicing on them. Otherwise, guys would never have been practicing on them, no matter what was being laid down. That’s going to help you bowl better. With the patterns that have been laid down in the past, the scores have been much higher because people have this information. I mean, we had a 3700 shot, we skipped 3600, and the pattern ratio wasn’t all that high. Now, those guys bowled great, as a lot of people did, but I believe in practice, and I believe in learning. The more you practice on something, the more you’re going to learn on it, even though the environment is going to be a little bit different. It’s still getting you a lot closer to where you want to be, which is in a situation where you can be at your best. Generally speaking, I am just not sure that, with the technology of today, there’s no reason to bowl on a pattern that someone else has won on before. It should all be new. What these companies have done in giving these incredible lane machines, it gives us the opportunity to put oil pretty much wherever we want. That’s the technology, and then let the bowler decide, after they get to the venue and after they see their ball go down the lane, where to move and how much hand to put in it and how fast or slow to throw it. We feel like those are the important parts of one bowler’s skill over another.
BJI: When did it first occur to you that maybe it was time to consider no longer revealing the lane patterns for this tournament beforehand?
CM: Well, for me, this goes back a long time. I was a tour rep before I was doing this, and when they started with the animal patterns, I mean, these guys wouldn’t even really have to practice. We’d have a different set of balls for Cheetah, a different set of balls for Shark, a different set of balls [for each of the patterns]. Some of them were the same, but everybody knew how the pattern was going to play, and so they just went out and the best bowler won. I just struggle with that, generally speaking. If you go back to the true greats of the game, a Norm Duke or a Walter Ray, their gift was versatility. They didn’t reign supreme on a given pattern. I don’t think it’s good sport to have a winner determined beforehand, not based on their skill but based on what’s on the lane. [Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher] Clayton Kershaw this year is going to win 18 to 25 games, somewhere in that range, but he’s still got to throw the ball, and he still has to pick and choose which pitches to throw at a given time. That’s a skill and a strategy. To me, the great part about our game is the adjustments you have to make, and the lane pattern being elusive.
BJI: That baseball analogy is interesting because of the incredible amount of scouting that goes into every game, the amount of research a catcher will share with a pitcher to develop a strategy for each hitter they will face, and yet if that knowledge alone were all that was needed, no one ever would get a hit in a baseball game. But, of course, guys still get hits and score runs. You do kind of wonder about the extent to which strategy outweighs one’s individual talent.
CM: We could extend the analogy to golf, too, with the greens, right? Because so much of the information about the greens—the USGA is having conversations right now about all the gaming that’s going on, how much information that players should have about the greens and the undulations and those types of things. It’s the same thing with bowling. Those were always things that they had to read and adjust to. To go back to baseball, the batter has a book, too; they know what Clayton Kershaw throws on an 0-2 count, and what percentage of the time it’s a fastball or a curveball or a slider. The pitcher knows where 80 percent of fastballs that are thrown are going to land for [St. Louis Cardinals infielder] Matt Carpenter. That’s all good information. Same thing for the bowler. If they’re practicing on prior patterns that have been used, that is good data. They’re going to find some tendencies. What we need to do as the national governing body putting on a quality event is to choose new pattern that challenges our bowlers and increases their knowledge at the event and then, ultimately, crown the champion that showed the most skill. It shouldn’t be magic—that magic bullet, that magic bowling ball—it just shouldn’t exist. It has to be about the skill of the bowler.
BJI: One thing that is fascinating about all this is the battle between technological advancement and the bowling industry’s attempts to keep up with it. You see the technology with the lane machines you alluded to and restricting access to knowledge about a pattern that’s being laid down, or you see all the technology with today’s bowling balls and attempts to keep pace with that technology by designing new lane patterns or making adjustments to existing ones. Is there any end game here, or is this a battle that is going to go on forever?
CM: It’s evolution. I mean, technology, at its core, provides for ease of use. When you think about computers, iPhones, iPads, a lane machine, a ball that is stronger today than it was, it’s making it easier for the consumer to digest the goods and use them. So, as the national governing body, we’ve got to figure out ways, within that technology available to the consumer, to still challenge the bowler and crown champions that are worthy.