Do you still hear all that stuff about how bowlers aren't really athletes at all, just a bunch of overweight guys who roll a few games between beers to get away from the old lady? Forget it. That may be true of the fellows down at the Friday Night Bartenders' League, where a good count in the 10th will get you a 150 game, but don't try to convince anybody in the Professional Bowlers Association, and especially not Dave Davis.
To be sure, Davis doesn't look like much of an athlete. At 6'2" and 140 pounds (he ballooned up to 160 two years ago, then decided all that extra weight made him too sluggish and dieted it away again) he resembles a pale, blue-veined one-iron, but he can talk about a bowling lane with all the intensity of a Nicklaus discussing the breaks on the 18th green at Augusta. To Davis, any two of those thin, 55-foot strips of laminated wood stretching from the foul line to the head pin are as different as the Pyrenees and the Bonneville Salt Flats. "These lanes aren't even all the way across," he said at Akron last week. "The differences are only a few thousandths of an inch. You can't see them, but it takes just one or two balls to tell."
Most important, though, when he put down 47 of the country's best bowlers last week in the $100,000 Tournament of Champions, the richest event on the year-long PBA circuit, he had the bankroll of a class athlete. He earned his $25,000 first prize by defeating Don Johnson in the tournament finals 213-205—on the very last ball of the very last frame of the very last game, the 1,736th of the week. With Johnson in at 205, Davis went to the line for his 10th frame knowing he needed a spare plus three pins to win. His first ball left what bowlers refer to with a certain sarcasm as a "ringing seven." He went up again, and with a long, graceful sweep of his left arm sent the ball trundling down the alley. Then he fell to his knees, clasped his calloused and blistered hands above his head and closed his eyes. He never saw the seven-pin fall, but when it did Johnson's only hope was for Davis to throw a gutter ball. Not a chance. Up to that final game only one embarrassed bowler had done that, and Davis wasn't about to be the second. He struck solidly, and promptly on cue—right there in front of a nationwide television audience that saw it all in living color—the Phoenix one-iron collapsed, crying and shaking uncontrollably. It was hardly the way for the 1967 Bowler of the Year to act, but Davis said, "When I went for the spare I hit my ankle with the ball. I didn't think it was going to make it. I just closed my eyes and didn't look until I heard it hit. I've never been so nervous on one ball in my life."
For Johnson—at 27 two years older than Davis—this was his second straight final-round Tournament of Champions defeat. He is $12,500 poorer, the difference between first and second money, but then it was something of a minor miracle that he got to roll for the title in the first place. If Davis was tight, Johnson was just about the loosest guy in the whole state of Ohio, so loose, in fact, that he very nearly didn't qualify for the final five positions.
April 15, 1968
Johnson is from Kokomo, Ind. and naturally has acquired the nickname the "Kokomo Kid" (his intimates call him Koko). He also is chairman of the PBA Image Committee. That's right, the Image Committee. It does exactly what you'd expect it to do—look after the image of the PBA. Sam Baca, a tour bowler and a close friend of Koko's, explained: "About three years ago the young guys on the tour were, well, a little wild. About half a dozen of us. We dressed sloppy—white Levi's, things like that—and let our hair grow. You know. Well, Koko was the worst. He had this Beatle haircut that came down to his eyebrows. The guys told him to get it cut. He didn't. So what happens? Next thing you know he's chairman of the Image Committee. Now he's got to get a haircut. He became unbearable, going around telling us to get our shoes shined, wear ties and stuff."
Johnson even bought a suit. A suit with a double-breasted vest, right off the rack. "In Kokomo," Koko said.
In last week's first 24 games of qualifying, scored strictly on pinfall, the original field of 48 was halved. Johnson was in third place. But then came the second 24-game series, this time a round robin that awarded an additional 50-point bonus for each match won. On Thursday night, after the first block of eight games, Johnson was a rousing 13th. "I was so mad at myself," Johnson said, "I went out and had a few beers and didn't get to bed until 5 a.m."
Although he fought Excedrin headache No. 46 all day Friday, Johnson slowly worked his way up. In one stretch he won 11 of 13 matches and earned 550 bonus points. After the eight-game afternoon block he was in eighth place. In the evening block, after two aspirins and a steak, he went after the three bowlers in front of him and finally caught the last survivor, Jim Godman, in the seventh round. That made him eligible for the final rounds, involving the five top bowlers.
Meanwhile the rest of the final positions were being filled. Davis had the first qualifying spot. Jim Stefanich, the defending champion was second, Bill Tucker third and 38-year-old Dick Weber, who long ago took his place among the alltime bowling greats, was fourth.
In the finals—a neat 90-minute package designed for TV, which is the main reason the PBA prize money this year will be $1.7 million—Johnson (No. 5) opened against Weber (No. 4), the winner to meet Tucker (No. 3), and so on.
Rarely has a bowler gone from fifth to first under the current format. Johnson very nearly did it. He needed a strike and a good count in the 10th frame to defeat Weber, which he got; Tucker needed a double (two strikes) in the 10th to defeat Johnson, which he didn't get. Then Jim Stefanich was up, the same Jim Stefanich who had defeated Johnson last year and who, Johnson believes, "could be the greatest of them all before he quits." Ironically, it was the only easy game Johnson had. By the time Stefanich came out the hot television lights had dried out the lanes just enough so the ball hooked more than it had during an earlier practice session. Stefanich didn't adjust and had three splits, none of which he could convert, and lost 201-145.
Out of the wings came Davis, dressed immaculately in a dark-green shirt and green-plaid slacks. Koko didn't bat an eye. He strung three strikes in the fifth, sixth and seventh frames and appeared to have everything wrapped up. But in his eighth frame he broke the string—on his first ball he left that same ringing seven that Davis later needed. In the ninth he left himself a 4-6-10 split (Excedrin headache No. 47) and did not convert. Davis didn't blow the chance Johnson had given him.
A half hour later Davis was still trying to calm down. "I don't know what it is. I've never been like this in my life. I guess it's because I've never bowled for that kind of money before. Maybe the next time it'll be easier."
Maybe, but not likely. Bowling just isn't like that anymore.