By Bob Johnson
I devoted by April “Strikes Me” column in Bowlers Journal International to the changes announced for the 2017 U.S. Open.
While acknowledging that it would have been nice for potential entrants to be aware of the new invitational requirements ahead of time, I noted that was a fairly small price to pay to elevating the stature of the tournament.
But there was one aspect I thought could have been handled better. Here an excerpt from the column…
My only real quarrel with the format involves how the PTQ is being handled. In the past, All-Star and U.S. Open Qualifiers were conducted by state and local affiliates of the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America. Winners of the qualifying events received direct entries into the tournament, and in some years, those bowlers who failed to make the first cut had their own consolation mini-tournament.
Unfortunately, there were a few “abuses” of the Qualifiers over the years, with some proprietors simply handing out entries to friends without conducting an actual qualifying event. Perhaps that’s why, for the 2017 U.S. Open, local and state qualifiers may be conducted, but the winners will receive entries not into the tournament, but rather into the PTQ.
In other words, bowlers not on the invitation list who want to bowl in the tournament may have to bowl in a win-a-spot event to win a spot in a win-a-spot event. With the Open being held in Liverpool, N.Y., that’s a formula that could work in some East Coast and Midwest markets, but isn’t likely to gain much traction on the West Coast.
Three days after the April edition went to the printer, it was announced that local qualifying events for the 2018 U.S. Open would award direct entries into the tournament, and not into another win-a-spot event.
Meanwhile, the announcement about the various changes being implemented this year — which you can read about here — sparked lots of reaction on social media. Two examples:
- Brian Zeisig: "Amazing to me that most people haven't been able to grasp that just because the event is called the U.S. Open, that doesn’t mean that ANYONE should be allowed to bowl in it.”
- Jon Van Hees: "The USBC has announced the 2017 U..S Open will be in Upstate N.Y. and will be limited to 144 bowlers, all of which will be basically by invitation based on a few criteria of performance. This is a huge shift from prior years and I feel will really help create a higher echelon atmosphere for what is already one of bowling’s Crown Jewels’”
As the conversation expanded on Facebook and Twitter, BJI’s Editor, Gianmarc Manzione, sought out comments from several other bowlers.
We begin with these observations from Mike Aulby: “Anytime you limit the size of the field, have eligibility requirements, and most importantly have enough games in the format to make it a legitimate major tournament, it goes to the top of the list of prestigious tournaments. Chad [Murphy] and his staff are working in the right direction to bring back and keep the competitive sport side of our industry moving forward.”
Manzione also had a conversation with Bob Learn Jr.:
Q: Your thoughts on capping this year’s U.S. Open field at 144 and basing the field primarily on invitations?
Learn: Well, it takes me back to when I was growing up. I looked at this, and the Tournament of Champions, as the most prestigious events on tour. Both events were exclusive; you had to qualify to get in. You had state spots available through proprietors. Unless you were a past champion or a top touring player, your only way to bowl the U.S. Open was to win a spot. I think we have lost that feel of prestige in our events. For me, the Tournament of Champions got away from that. It used to be that you could win three titles and still not have enough to bowl next year’s ToC. A lot of people think they should be able to bowl these events; I feel we have lost our sense of the history behind these events. The U.S. Open used to be the All-Star; you had to bowl a 100-game marathon, and I wish it still were like that today. It is cost-prohibitive now so you can't. The U.S. Open was always ‘open,’ you just had to get a spot. It meant something to be able to bowl the U.S. Open. We got away from that. I remember when some guys from MIT came out and paid to bowl the U.S. Open just to say they bowled the U.S. Open. And they got to bowl. They were horrendous bowlers. But the point is, why would they ever be able to bowl our tournament? That was no better than an open-play bowler just deciding, ‘Hey, I wanna do this.’ And they could! That takes away from the integrity and the prestige of any tournament, if you ask me.
Q: Why would that ever have happened at the U.S. Open, of all tournaments?
Learn: I don't know why, but the local win-a-spot events for the U.S. Open went away. Maybe some proprietors just started handing out their spots to people and it just sort of lost its way. But, if you go back to a 144-player field and the only way you can get in is through qualifiers, and there's a big-enough prize, it’s fun to make it [into the tournament] obviously, and everybody wants in. For me, the biggest title I ever won was the U.S. Open. It is a long, grueling, tough tournament, and if you say to anybody, ‘What’s the hardest title to win?’ They would say the U.S. Open.
Q: Some are confused as to why it’s called the U.S. ‘Open’ when in fact, maybe now more than ever, it is anything but ‘open.’ Is that misleading, in any way?
Learn: Well, if you listen to Chad's explanation online, he explained it very well. Everybody has an opportunity. This year, of course, not knowing going in that those are going to be some of the qualifications . . . but, you have to start somewhere, right? Now, going into next year, I know if I bowl the USBC Open Championships and finish among the highest amateurs, then I can qualify for this event. There has got to be somebody to take a stand and try to bring prestige back to our sport. There is no other sport that has a U.S. Open that accepts anyone into the field who pays an entry fee. We have to get this tournament back to a place where people say, ‘Hey, that’s something really special to be a part of.’ We have lost that.
Q: Both Pete Weber and Walter Ray Williams seemed to pine nostalgically for the days when the U.S. Open had fields of 300 or 400 bowlers. but how many of those bowlers had any business bowling a U.S. Open?
Learn: Any amateurs who qualified for it through a local qualifier likely were among the best amateurs in the country, but yeah — just to say, ‘Hey, we have 500 entries, just to beef up our prize money, I think that is just the wrong way to look at it, short-sighted. I think we really have lost a lot of respect in our sport and it is because we really have done it to ourselves. We haven’t respected ourselves. The way to respect ourselves is to say, ‘Hey, not so easy. You can’t just show up and get in.’ Knowing where the game was, and to see where it has gone now? It is somewhat disturbing to me, and I am as passionate about this game as anybody. It does make me shake my head sometimes, when I see some of the things that have been done — gimmicky things that are so short-minded and take away from who we are, or who we should be.
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
Learn: We have to bring credibility back to what we are doing. [The U.S. Open changes] are a start. When I first started bowling the tour, I couldn't bowl the Tournament of Champions. I couldn't bowl the U.S. Open, and I was okay with that. You know why? Because that's the way it was. But, for so many years, guys could bowl anything they wanted, and then they go, ‘Well, this isn’t fair!’ I can remember when I bowled one of my first U.S. Open tournaments, I bowled with Steve Neff, who was there as a past champion. I crossed with him. And I can just remember how that felt, like, ‘Wow! This guy actually won this tournament. And I’m going to bowl with him.’
While Learn strongly supports capping the field, a five time winner of the tournament, Pete Weber, has another viewpoint. Here are excerpts from his conversation with Mazione…
Q: What are your thoughts on the decision to cap this year's U.S. Open field at 144 and base the field primarily on invitations?
Weber: I don’t think it’s right that they’re limiting it to 144. I was kind of shocked when I read the invite, saying that I was invited on my past performances. (Laughs.) I was like, ‘Well, I've kinda won five of ’em. I guess I would be invited.’
Q: Don’t some pros complain about having to share pairs at the U.S. Open with amateurs who have no business being out there?
Weber: Well, I agree with that. It used to be you just pay your money and . . . maybe they’re just trying to weed out the people that should't be there. I mean, [amateurs] don't understand rules. So maybe they’re just trying to make it a better tournament. Like I say, I just don’t know what they're trying to do.
Q: And you said you did receive your invitation, right?:
Weber: Oh yeah, I got mine. I think I got the first one. I know I am going to enter as soon as I get home. I’m on the road right now.
Q: Why did it shock you to see the field limited to 144 players?
Weber: Because it’s never been that way before. It’s always been 300-and-whatever people, you know? Whatever the house could hold. I just think there are more than 144 guys that are more than capable of bowling that tournament. So, I don’t understand why they’re limiting it. I mean, they cut the prize fund to make the lower half a lot better. So maybe they’re trying to do that, too, so that if you do cash in the tournament, you do make money. Like I say, I am just not understanding some of those changes that they’re making. But, you know, it’s their tournament so I guess I have to abide by their rules.