By Mike McGrath
NORM DUKE WON three titles during the 2011-12 PBA season. And the earth is round and water’s wet. Coal is black. Kansas is flat. And dog bites man.
It’s not exactly stop-the-presses stuff. Norm Duke is to professional bowling what the old Yankees used to be to baseball, Notre Dame used to be to football, Ali to boxing. Norm Duke with a bowling ball is Hank Aaron with a bat, Magic Johnson with a basketball, Sinatra with a song.
In the cases of a couple of those titles, he made it look hard. But long-time Duke watchers weren’t fooled. It was vintage Duke. He just toyed with the field. Waited for the opening, then landed the right, played the ace, went to the whip.
Duke treats bowling lanes the way you might treat a beautiful girl. He romances them, cajoles them, coaxes them. He flatters them. Even talks to them. It was the way Shoemaker rode racehorses, Jack Nicklaus played golf or a riverboat gambler plays cards.
Duke knows that professional bowling tournaments — well, most of them, anyway — involve a lot of games. This would seem to be an obvious piece of information to most people, but it’s surprising how many bowlers seem to think they have to win a tournament in the first game.
Duke doesn’t really care who leads the tournament after six or eight or 10 games. He spends that time trying to establish a rapport between the lanes and his bowling balls — making them his sweetheart, getting them to eat out of his hand, not biting them.
With bowling balls, you have to find out what they can do and will do and cannot do. Lanes are the same way. They change from day to evening and from frame to frame. It is during the early rounds of a tournament that Duke observes and adjusts and puts the information in the memory bank for future use.
Duke doesn’t walk around a bowling center; he swaggers around it. He always looks like a guy trying to scare up a game or press a bet. You get the feeling that he could beat you left-handed if the price were right.
Much of that swagger comes from the fact that Duke learned the game by bowling pot games and money matches with his own dollars on the line. He has been known to empty the pockets of local stars from coast to coast prior to and during his many years on the PBA Tour. As his fellow competitors like to say, “You’d better have car fare in your shoes if you take on Duke at his own game.”
In this era of power bowlers with powerful bowling balls on highly reactive lanes, Duke is a throwback to another era. He is constantly adjusting his speed and his hand position to fit the environment that he’s facing. He is one of the few bowlers of the modern era who would not have to change his game considerably in order to be successful in the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s.
You could compare him to Don Carter or Nelson Burton Jr. or Dick Ritger, all of whom also were masters of subtle hand releases and speed adjustments. The word “finesse” comes to mind. In fact, if you were to look up “finesse” in your bowling dictionary, you’d find Norm Duke’s picture there.
Also like those aforementioned names, Duke seems to bring his game to its highest level in the most important tournaments. This is evidenced by his seven major titles — including the Grand Slam, something that has been accomplished by only one other bowler: Mike Aulby.
I would not like to see Mario Andretti in my rearview mirror on a racetrack. I would not like to go down and check on a noise in the cellar of a castle in Transylvania. I would not like to find a rattlesnake under my bed.
And I would not like to go into the final round of the U.S. Open with a mere 50-pin lead over Norm Duke. The bleached bones of guys who have tried it line every cattle trail in Oklahoma.
Norm Duke is 48 years old. That’s not old enough. That has nothing to do with that little-hooking ball that has been emptying wallets and piling up trophies and winning 37 tour titles since 1983.
Where he comes from, they give two-handers 10 pins a game and their choice of which lane to finish on.