By all rights, Nelson Burton Jr. probably should have been at home in St. Louis last Saturday watching the finals of the Grand Prix of Bowling on TV. But there he was in Reno, winning the tournament when two legends unexpectedly fell off their pedestals.
Burton barely sneaked into the wrap-up at the MGM Grand Hotel Saturday afternoon, then watched in amazement as Earl Anthony and Mark Roth, the most prominent names in the sport over the last few years, both failed to convert easy spares, giving Burton the $10,000 first-place prize in the men's division.
Burton's victory route was much more arduous than that of Cheryl Robinson, the women's champion, who led after five of the six stages and thus had a downhill run through the 38-game qualifying round. Burton, meanwhile, stole the fourth and last spot in qualifying, although his scoring average was almost 10 pins a game lower than that of the third-place finisher, George Pappas. In fact, three nonqualifiers had better averages than Burton, but Burton accumulated important bonus points by winning 14 of 20 games in match play.
"The other players seemed to beat themselves," said the surprised Burton. It was a fair assessment. First he defeated Pappas by two pins, rolling a 217 in the first match on Saturday. Then, in the semifinals, Burton met Anthony, who had been second in the qualifying to Roth. However, Anthony left two open frames against Burton, inexplicably missing a pair of conversions on spares, and scored a 213 as Burton rolled a winning total of 223.
December 18, 1978
In the finals, Roth was rolling along, blasting pins apart with his wrecker's-ball delivery, until the fifth frame, when he stumbled on his approach and failed to convert the 2-5. That was hardly typical of the tour's top money-winner ($134,000) and its leader in tournament wins (eight). Shaken, Roth left the 6-10 standing in the next frame, missed the spare—and wound up with a disastrous 184. His score was two pins less than Cheryl Robinson's winning score against Donna Adamek in the women's finals. Burton cruised to the title with a 216.
The season-ending AMF Grand Prix involved 40 bowlers. 20 men and 20 women, with each group rolling for $50,000 in prize money. Most of the entrants qualified on the basis of season-long point standings; however, five bowlers in each division got sponsor's exemptions. One was Doris Coburn, a grandmother and Hall of Famer from Buffalo who refuses to reveal her age. "I can't tell you that," said Frank, her husband. "If I did she'd kill me." Frank won't give his age, either. "If you find out how old she is," he said, "just add two and that's me." Sometimes Frank won't even give his name. "They've called me Doris' husband so long that I can't remember it," he said.
The Coburns are typical of the familial side of pro bowling. Burton's father, Nelson, was one of the alltime greats, a man with a classic delivery who later became a highly successful hustler. Several pro bowlers are married to each other. Cheryl Robinson's husband, Jay, won the men's Grand Prix last year (he failed to survive the qualifying rounds this year). Many of the women bowlers travel with their husbands, who double as coaches and advisers. Frank Coburn, a short, slight man with a cheerful, toothy face, has kept charts of women's tournaments over the last 10 years. He is a former car salesman who now bills himself as a pro bowling coach. The Coburns' three daughters all are excellent bowlers.
To prepare for the Grand Prix, the Coburns practiced twice daily for two 'months, Frank coaching Doris on technique. In Reno, with only five games remaining in qualifying, Doris was in 10th place, and she was huddling frequently with Frank.
The battle for the fourth and last qualifying spot seemed to be between Bev Ortner and Betty Morris, the Grand Prix champion the last two years. Morris, however, was upset by the death of her father on Tuesday—"She's not herself at all," said her husband. Bob—while Ortner also was bowling inconsistently. In her last four games, Ortner averaged only 163. Morris was several lanes away, bowling against Coburn. As Coburn strung together four strikes to beat Morris and clinch fourth place, Frank burst into applause. "The way she keeps me jumping, she has to be after my life insurance," he wheezed. "She asked me the other day what double indemnity is."
The men's qualifying was just as heated. Heading into the final night's action, Burton was fourth, only nine pins ahead of Ernie Schlegel, the tour's version of Captain Midnight. Schlegel is a creator of exotic bowling apparel who has his costumes custom-made in New York's Greenwich Village. A blithe nomad who lists his hometown as U.S.A., Schlegel also has a "mental adviser" traveling with him—John Mazzio, a former IBM employee from Chicago. Mazzio is working on Schlegel's "negative pattern and teaching Ernie to understand himself." Schlegel, a tour nonwinner, has a notebook in which he writes down everything Mazzio tells him. He should have used it for reference Friday night; he never found his stroke, won only one match and dropped to eighth place and a check for $1,800.
Perhaps Schlegel bowled poorly because of his bland raiment. Pro bowling officials no longer permit him to wear really bizarre stuff—like his red, white and blue bicentennial special, or his silver lamè
jumpsuit. During the Grand Prix he had to be content with such garb as pants with a zipper on the knee and shoes sprayed silver. "They won't let him be different," complained his wife, Catherine. "Ernie's a vibe person."
Some people might feel that Schlegel is exactly what pro bowling needs these days. Too often the tour plays dowdy shopping centers with burned-out neon. For the Grand Prix presentation ceremonies, the MGM Grand supplied two show girls—Elizabeth Larkin and Tracy Hatcher. Asked to name a famous bowler, they couldn't. "We're not glamorous," admitted Burton.
Now 36, Burton is a physical-conditioning enthusiast and has appeared in ABC-TV's Superstars competition. He sees himself as an athlete, not just a bowler. "I bowl now for the self-satisfaction," he says. "I don't have the egotism I used to have." This mellow attitude helped Burton through what could have been a frustrating year. Twice this season Burton lost all of his equipment—once when a bowling center burned down in Kirksville, Mo., and once to thieves.
There was a bit of thief in Burton at Reno. On the tour, if you catch fire on the final day, you can steal the tournament. In the women's finals, Coburn, still nervous after all these years, lost to Donna (The Brat) Adamek, who at 20 is about 35 years younger than her opponent. Doris had three splits and only got a 154, taking home fourth-place money of $3,000. In the next round, Adamek got nasty with a 223 that sidelined Vesma Grinfelds, the tour's No. 2 money-winner, but in the finals—with $10,000 to the winner and $7,000 to the runner-up—youth wasn't so well served. Robinson threw a 186 against Adamek's 156.
The men's final was full of surprises. "Nelson threw one good game and won $10,000," said Pappas. After Burton beat Pappas in his first match, Anthony and Roth beat themselves.
Anthony began with four straight strikes against Burton, causing some consternation in the executive offices of the MGM Grand. The hotel had put up an $11,000 prize for a 300 game on television, and Anthony, the tour leader in career wins with 30, had the style, experience and grit to do it. On June 20 he suffered a severe heart attack, but two months later he was back bowling and winning. In his fifth frame Saturday, he left the 7 pin standing on his first ball, and missed it with his second. Amazingly, he missed the 7 once again in the ninth frame. "I can go an entire week and not miss a spare," sighed Anthony. 'Today I missed two of them when it counted."
Through all of this, Roth was fidgeting on the sidelines, waiting to see who would face him in the finals. Roth's aggressive bowling style matches his personality. He is best when he can go after it, and the waiting had left him edgy. He had led Burton by 454 pins in the qualifying, but now would have to roll against him in one game for first place.
When Roth missed his spare attempt in the fifth frame, he was shaken. And when he did the same thing in the next frame, the match was over.
For Burton, it was his second victory of the year. On each cheek he wore bright smudges of lipstick, victory kisses from the show girls, who now know at least one bowler's name. And sticking out of his hip pocket was a red feather that had fallen off one of the girls' costumes. Burton had found it. In another pocket was the $10,000 winner's check. In a sense, he had found that, too.