ARLINGTON, Texas - In 2019, Jakob Butturff was on top of the bowling world, pocketing more than $200,000 in Professional Bowlers Association competition and picking up the first major title of his career at the United States Bowling Congress Masters.
A year later, that world was upside down for the young left-hander from Tempe, Arizona, even beyond the global chaos that ensued because of COVID-19.
The seven-time PBA Tour champion lost focus when it came to his health and physical fitness, and the year ended with the loss of his mother, Bridget, after a brave battle with cancer.
Butturff knew there were two ways he could rebound from such a challenging time in his life, and the desire to continue making his mother proud was enough to steer him back to the habits and dedication that made him one of the world's most successful bowlers over the last five years.
Following a progress-proving performance at the recent PBA World Series of Bowling XII in Tampa, Florida, the 26-year-old is ready to bring that momentum to the iconic National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada, where he'll finally get to defend his USBC Masters title and look to improve on some heartbreaking finishes at the U.S. Open.
The two tournaments are considered majors on the PBA Tour schedule and will be held consecutively at the 78-lane NBS, starting March 30. The Masters will take the spotlight through April 4, and the U.S. Open will be contested April 6-11.
The qualifying and match-play rounds of both events will be broadcast live on BowlTV.com and simulcast to FloBowling, and both tournaments will conclude live on Fox Sports' FS1 as part of the 2021 PBA Tour television schedule on April 4 and April 11, respectively, from 2-4 p.m. Eastern.
"I woke up after the Players Championship in January and realized the pressure I was putting on my body, and the decisions I was making, were not good, and I was not the Jakob I wanted to be," said Butturff, who made the PBA West Regional finals for the 2021 PBA Players Championship then finished second in the PBA World Championship and Chameleon Championship, both part of the World Series of Bowling. "I know my mom would want me to be successful and not dwell on things or stay on the path I was on. I want to keep making her proud. Even though she's not physically here, I know I'll always have her support, and she's still watching every shot I throw."
The Masters, which last was held in Reno in 2011, will kick off with three days of qualifying for a field of more than 250 of the best bowlers in the world, and the top 63 bowlers, based on their 15-game qualifying totals, will join Butturff in the event's double-elimination match-play bracket.
Butturff rolled undefeated through the bracket in his hometown of Las Vegas in 2019, defeating eventual PBA Rookie of the Year Mykel Holliman of Collierville, Tennessee, in the title match, 228-196.
Two years later, Butturff is ready to put that title on the line in a one-of-a-kind venue where he has enjoyed past success.
"I feel like one of the hardest things to do in our sport is defend a title, but I enjoy the format at the Masters, I'm in a great place personally and with my bowling, and I've had past success in that building," said Butturff, who finished third in Regular All-Events when the USBC Open Championships visited the NBS in 2016. "I'd say my confidence right now is pretty high up there, and I'm feeling and bowling a lot more like 2019 Jakob."
Another similarity to 2019 is that Butturff also was the runner-up at the PBA World Championship that year, falling to Australia's Jason Belmonte in the final. It wasn't the outcome Butturff hoped for, but he feels it played a role in his Masters win 11 days later.
This year, Butturff lost to Tom Daugherty in a high-scoring final, and though he didn't win that event, there's always the hope history will continue to repeat itself.
The U.S. Open also has provided some deja vu for Butturff in recent years, along with a roller-coaster ride over the last four events, so the idea of redemption at that tournament always is on his mind for a variety of reasons.
He earned the top seed for the TV show in 2017 by more than 600 pins, before losing to fellow left-hander Rhino Page in the title match. In 2018, Butturff again set the pace, claiming the No. 1 seed by a margin of more than 550 pins. Again, he finished as the runner-up, this time losing to England's Dom Barrett.
The 2019 tournament provided a different type of disappointment, as an injury forced Butturff to withdraw during the third round of qualifying, after shooting over 200 just seven times in 19 games.
At the 2020 edition in Lincoln, Nebraska, one of the few events held before COVID-19 shut down all sporting events, he finished in the middle of the pack and failed to make match play once again.
"When I led the U.S. Open by so much those two years, I think my mindset was possibly a little too arrogant, and I think that affected me during the next two years," Butturff said. "The reason I led was because I was patient and focused. The last two years, I feel I was trying to strike on every shot, and I got flustered easily. By realizing what went wrong, I hope I'll be able to take the things I learned and be successful again."
While the 2020 U.S. Open didn't pan out for Butturff, it couldn't have gone better for Belmonte, who finally claimed the title that had eluded him through more than a decade on the PBA Tour.
He earned the coveted green jacket at Sun Valley Lanes for his then-record 12th major title, and the win helped him join USBC and PBA Hall of Famer Mike Aulby as the only players in history to complete the Super Slam, which includes the U.S. Open, USBC Masters, PBA Tournament of Champions, PBA World Championship and PBA Players Championship.
Belmonte has since added another couple of titles, including a victory at the 2020 PBA World Championship for his 13th major win, and a sixth PBA Player of the Year Award.
The 37-year-old Australian did make TV at the recent World Series of Bowling, but it only was as a sideline reporter. Making a run or two, in Reno, where he has had past success, would be welcomed way to end his extended road trip.
This stint for Belmonte in the United States marks the longest he has been away from home in a long time.
Due to strict travel protocols, it made more sense for him to remain in the United States during the first portion of the PBA Tour schedule, since returning would mean an automatic 14 days of isolation in a hotel. He arrived in January and will not return home until the end of April.
During the uncharacteristic free time on the road, he has been able to stay busy with various business endeavors, working on his brand, working with sponsors and more - all things he has been able to do digitally, without moving about too much within the United States.
The 25-time PBA Tour champion also recently announced that he and wife, Kimberly, are expecting their fourth child, so the $30,000 top prize from the 2021 U.S. Open would be a nice start to a new stash of diapers, though the prize money on the PBA Tour never has been the main focus for him.
"Children bring love and excitement and joy, but you've also got to pay for them," Belmonte joked. "One of my main goals always has been to give my children and family a great life, but my time on tour has not been about the financial benefits. Sure, that's a nice reward for success, but that is pressure that does not need to be there. I focus on performing for myself, my family, the fans and my sponsors. As a competitor, I don't want to make it any harder than it already is out there."
Even before the U.S. Open, though, Belmonte will focus on the Masters, where he has found continued success. He won the event three consecutive times from 2013-2015 and got the job done again in 2017 to become the first four-time winner.
While it appears he may feel comfortable in the unique double-elimination format at the Masters or thrive in the long format of the U.S. Open, where 56 games of pinfall, including 24 games of bonus pins from match play, determines the finalists, each year brings a new challenge.
"In my experience at these two events, every single year there's differences, and it's a brand new puzzle to figure out," Belmonte said. "As much as I've enjoyed my success at the Masters and winning last year's U.S. Open, I know this year will be different. I hope I can use my past experience as an advantage, but I also try to treat it like it's my first time bowling. You still have to put in the work and watch ball reaction and be aware of who you're following. You have to make sure you stay focused on every shot."
Qualifying at the U.S. Open will take place over four days and four challenging oil patterns, beginning April 6. All 108 players will bowl during the first three days, before the field is cut to the top 36 for the fourth round.
Total pinfall for 32 games will determine the 24 players who advance to round-round match play.
If Belmonte can become the first bowler since USBC Hall of Famer Dave Husted in 1996 to win the U.S. Open in back-to-back years, he also would become the first bowler to win the Super Slam twice.
Among his 13 major titles are four wins at the Masters, three victories at the PBA Tournament of Champions, three PBA World Championship titles and a pair of wins at the PBA Players Championship.
"Last year, when I won the U.S. Open, it wasn't just about getting the one I hadn't gotten," Belmonte said. "It meant the Triple Crown, Grand Slam and Super Slam. Winning the U.S. Open again would make me the only player to complete the Super Slam twice, which would be incredibly special to me, and it would help achieve my goal of being considered one of the best bowlers of all-time."
The 2021 U.S. Open will be a collaborative effort between USBC and the Bowling Proprietors' Association of America, and the limited field will include the sport's best bowlers, most of whom earned their spots in the event based on their recent on-lane performances. The list includes leaders on the PBA Tour points list and top performers at USBC events and PBA majors.
For more information on the USBC Masters or U.S. Open, visit BOWL.com.