By Matt Cannizzaro, PWBA Communications
For the third time in her career, Shannon O'Keefe found herself in tears on the television set of a major bowling championship, but this time it was as the winner of the 2017 Smithfield Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour Championship, the first major title of her career.
The 38-year-old right-hander struck six times in the first seven frames of the title match against Kelly Kulick on Wednesday, and claimed her sixth PWBA Tour title by a 222-203 margin. The win brought O'Keefe $20,000, while Kulick took home $10,000 as the runner-up.
The championship round was broadcast live on CBS Sports Network from Richmond Raceway's Old Dominion Building in Richmond, Va.
O'Keefe was slowed only by a 3-6-7-10 split in the 3rd frame, which she was unable to convert, but converted a 10-pin in her final frame and got nine on her fill ball to shut out Kulick, whose only strike in the second half of the game came on her fill ball.
“I’ve dreamed of this moment for a really long time, and I don’t know if there are words to describe how I feel,” O'Keefe said. “I’ve been a contender at the U.S. Women's Open for the last decade and haven’t been able to pull it off, which has been frustrating. I’m just overwhelmed right now by how this feels.”
The last time O’Keefe bowled for a major title was in the 2015 U.S. Women's Open, in which she left, and missed, a final-frame washout, allowing United States Bowling Congress Hall of Famer Liz Johnson to claim the second of her four consecutive titles in that event.
This win also nearly got away from O'Keefe, who left a 4-6-7-10 split in the 10th frame of her semifinal match with Johnson. O'Keefe entered the final frame on a string of five consecutive strikes, and the miscue allowed Johnson to throw a strike and then pick up a 7-pin for a 222 tie.
It took three one-ball roll-offs for O’Keefe to lock up her spot in the championship match. Both players struck on their first two opportunities, and O’Keefe won the third, 10-9.
“The split in the 10th was a really bad shot, and I knew it wasn't going to hold because I whipped my hand around it,” O'Keefe said. “I immediately thought back to last time, but ultimately, I knew I threw nine great shots, and I was happy. It wasn’t the best result in a pressure moment, but it is what it is. Then, she gave me an opportunity, and from that moment on, it was go. I am grateful I had that second chance.”
As the point standings leader each season since the PWBA Tour returned in 2015, Johnson had been seeded into the televised portion of the event. But the three-time reigning PWBA Player of the Year has not been able to advance to the title match.
On her way to the final Wednesday, Kulick built an early lead against Shannon Pluhowsky, and led by nearly 40 pins at the halfway point. Two opens from Pluhowsky in the first six frames proved to be her undoing, and Kulick tossed nine strikes on the way to a 247-191 win.
Kulick, a six-time major champion, also was the runner-up at the 2017 Go Bowling PWBA Players Championship, losing to Johnson in the final.
“I did my job and threw really good shots, and the ball reaction just went away a little bit,” said Kulick, whose last major title was the U.S. Women’s Open in 2012. “Swishy 7, ring 10… it could've gone either way. Shannon had a good look all week long and bowled great. I have no regrets, but I’m really tired of finishing second.
“Overall, I had a great season,” Kulick added. “Even though Liz ran away with it, I finished second for Player of the Year. I’m making cuts, I’m cashing and I’m making TV. That's all I can do, and next year, something’s going to give.”
All eligible 2017 PWBA Tour champions received automatic invitations to the Tour Championship, and the remainder of the 16-player field was filled through the PWBA points list.
O'Keefe earned her spot at the season-ending event with a win at the PWBA St. Petersburg-Clearwater Open. Kulick secured her place with a win at the PWBA Fountain Valley Open. Johnson, the season’s only three-time winner, advanced with a win at the PWBA Storm Sacramento Open.
Pluhowsky, whose best finish this season was a runner-up effort at the Nationwide PWBA Rochester Open, was the lone left-hander to qualify for the Tour Championship, and did so via the point list.
Johnson also won two of the season’s three majors, the Go Bowling PWBA Players Championship and the U.S. Women's Open, while finishing second at the other, the USBC Queens. Her consistency locked up a third consecutive Player of the Year award before a single ball was thrown at the Tour Championship.
As the top two players on the season point list, Johnson and Kulick earned automatic berths in Wednesday's semifinals, while O’Keefe and Pluhowsky battled their way through a 16-player single-elimination bracket, featuring best-of-five matches.
All rounds of the PWBA Tour Championship leading up to the TV finals were streamed on Xtra Frame, the exclusive online bowling channel of the Professional Bowlers Association. The lanes were specially installed inside the Old Dominion Building by QubicaAMF, the official supplier of bowling equipment for the 2017 Smithfield PWBA Tour Championship.