It was the 10th frame of the final match of the richest National Championship in the history of the Professional Bowlers Association. While ABC-TV trained its hot lights and color cameras on him, modish Dave Davis, so thin that he seems incapable of lifting a bowling ball, much less rolling it, stared calmly at $53 worth of plastic-sheathed bowling pins 60 feet down the lane, the only things standing between him and $12,500 in first-place money. All he had to do was get a spare and the money and title were his.
Davis had finished second nine times since winning his last PBA tournament in 1970, but last Saturday afternoon in Paramus, N.J. he seemed a cinch to end that frustrating streak. His opponent, Mike Limongello of Long Island, already had finished with 207 and had glumly sat down, mentally conceding the match. It was Jack Nicklaus needing to two-putt on the 18th for the Masters championship or John Brodie just needing to run out the clock with a minute to go. Well, almost that simple.
Davis' approach in that 10th frame was as careful and smooth as ever—until the last step. But then his foot slid a fraction too far, and the ball slammed into the headpin inches to the right of the pocket. Instead of a vacant alley or a tidy clutch of easily convertible pins, he had left the four, seven and 10—a split as wide as the Jersey Turnpike. His second shot ripped through the seven pin but failed to kiss off the four, and he went to his knees and buried his head in his hands. Second place again by five pins. Counting prize and bonus money, his failure to make that last spare cost him $10,000. In terms of frustration it cost more.
If $10,000 seems a ridiculous wad to have riding on a bowling match when it could be on something really significant like a 20-foot putt, consider the bullish trend of the sport. Skilled practitioners like Davis and Limongello may never get a credit rating as high as Arnold Palmer's, but the winter, summer and fall tours of the 13-year-old PBA are now worth close to $2 million, a 10% increase over 1970. At Paramus 64 pros collected a total of $85,000, or almost twice as much as the whole tour was worth when it started. Leading money-winner John Petraglia has earned $79,865 this year.
One reason for the dollar surge is a slick sales pitch. Potential sponsors—airlines, breweries, tire companies—are regularly worked over by the PBA promotional gurus. The Paramus tournament picked up one angel, Bellows-Valvair of Ohio, that manufactures nothing for bowlers and, in fact, nothing for the general public. Also, the sport is a solid moneymaker on television, which is not something golf can claim, mostly because of its high production costs. ABC-TV now carries 14 bowling finals.
Before reaching a nationwide TV audience, however, the finalists at Paramus had to knock down a veritable forest of pins. They went through a pro-am on Sunday, then bowled between 24 and 32 games over the next four days while the field was being hacked from 192 to 24. Protecting their calloused fingers with a nostrum called New-Skin and sheathing them in cotton, the top bowlers returned Thursday night to start round-robin match play. By the end of Friday night's session the field was cut to a final five.
Television, of course, wants every tournament to be the last reel of Bonnie and Clyde, and the PBA is only too happy to oblige. The result is necessarily hard on early leaders. Davis, who bowls out of Miami, could have been 1,000 pins ahead and still would have had to come back Saturday and stake everything in what amounts to a sudden-death playoff. The tube format calls for the fifth-place man after Friday to bowl against No. 4, the winner going against No. 3, and so on up to the top gun.
Early Saturday afternoon, while the network technicians were setting up their cameras and lights, the PBA experts were checking the dressing on the lanes (TV lights dry out the lane oil, leading to sharper hooks) and the fans were gathering around the pizza counter, bowling's answer to the clubhouse verandas at places like Forest Hills and Augusta. Inside gossip had it that Davis' opponent in the closing match would surely be Dave Soutar of Gilroy, Calif., his roommate on the tour. In a four-week period last fall the two had battled for a championship almost every week and won a total of $20,200. One fellow pro offered to pay them $20 a night to let him set up a cot in their room.
Anthony (Teata) Semiz, from nearby River Edge, N.J., was the pick of one habitué of the pizza counter, who assured everybody, through mouthfuls of a meatball hero, that if nothing else, Semiz would have the largest rooting section. Mike Limongello, who has a reputation as a tough money-player, was a strong dark-horse choice. The only finalist ruled out by practically everybody was Gus Lampo, an ex-Army cook from Endicott, N.Y. who was making his national TV debut. The problem was his hips. All the top shooters—Davis, Soutar, Limongello, money-leader Petraglia—are so thin they can swing the ball in a more vertical are than the average man, and much more so than a broad-beamed bowler like Lampo.
Still, Lampo had managed to keep the are vertical enough to take fifth place, pitting him against Limongello in the first knockout match. The younger, slighter but more experienced Limongello won easily 225-165 and then beat Soutar, who started off with five straight strikes but then faltered and died when, just like a member of the Monday night league legions, he aimed for the 10 pin and caught the gutter instead. Limongello took Semiz in a close match 212-203 and moved into the finals.
His match with Davis demonstrated that even the finest bowlers have flaws. Limongello "rears" at the line, raising up slightly just as he releases. Davis' ball always rolls—pocketa, pocketa, pocketa—over the thumbhole, which is supposed to be a professional's no-no. In the ninth frame of their duel, Limongello needed a strike to stay with Davis, but he left the seven pin and had to settle for a spare. All Davis had to do now was get a spare in the 10th to win. To the victor go the spares.
Last year Davis lost the PBA National Championship when he got the identical four-seven-10 split in the seventh frame of the final match. The chance of that catastrophe repeating itself had not entered his mind Saturday afternoon, but repeat it did. And if the $7,000 second-place money (bringing his 1971 earnings to $31,845) was scant balm for his final-frame debacle, he promised, nevertheless, to be on hand for the next stop of the PBA tour, the Lincoln Open in Lincoln, Neb. Where he finished second in 1970.