More than 400 bowlers from around the globe are going to strut their stuff at the Brunswick Zone Carolier in North Brunswick during the United States Bowling Congress Masters championship Feb. 16-23. Each competitor will stare down a 60-foot wooden lane with 10 pins waiting to be toppled in the distance.
The tournament, open to pros and amateurs, builds throughout the week to a final match that will be televised live on ESPN. For bowlers, Super Sunday is Feb. 23.
“All eyes in the bowling world will be on New Jersey,” said Parker Bohn III, 50, a pro bowler from Jackson who won the Masters in 2001. “I would love nothing more than to get myself the opportunity to walk away with the trophy in New Jersey.”
The event is expected to draw some 5,000 visitors to North Brunswick, said Debbie Stein, sales manager for Carolier, an 82-lane mega center that opened in 1962. Tickets, priced $10 to $95, are available for purchase at the bowling center or online at PBA.com/tickets.
“Carolier is the Wimbledon of the East Coast,” said Johnny Petraglia, 67, a PBA Hall of Fame bowler and Jersey resident who’s been competing for nearly five decades. “It’s the bowling palace of the East. It’s my home center, and it’s going to be fun to have a hometown crowd at the Masters.”
The Masters, a competition that dates to 1951, traditionally roves around to different locations across the country. The tournament is circling back to Carolier, which hosted last year’s Masters. The defending champ, Jason Belmonte, is an Australian titan who made history as the first two-handed bowler to win the Masters.
“New Jersey is one of my favorite places to bowl because the fans are dedicated and they have a real respect for the players,” said Belmonte, 30. “Bowling is a very misunderstood sport. It’s extremely difficult to master.
“When I was young, we didn’t have the pro tour televised in Australia. We had a friend in the U.S. that would record the bowling on TV and send us tapes. I was able to watch the way the players were able to manipulate a bowling ball down a lane unlike I’d ever seen before,” he said. “The amount of curve, the accuracy, the intense competition, I watched it all and I wanted to be a part of it.”
One of Belmonte’s heroes, Pete “PDW” Weber, will be stepping up to the foul line at Carolier. The emotional bowler, who wears sunglasses to block bright TV lights, has been defeating upstarts for decades, taking trophies in virtually every top contest except the Masters. His late father, Dick Weber, was a Hall of Fame bowler who ended his career without a Masters prize.
“I’m really hoping that this year is the year that I actually win the Masters,” said Weber, 51, of St. Ann, Mo. “It’s something I think the Weber family deserves. Usually when I win a major tournament, I do my stuff for the press and then I go straight to the bar and I buy the whole bar a drink. If I win the Masters at Carolier, I will buy a drink for whoever is in the bar.”
When Weber clinched his fifth U.S. Open title at Carolier in 2012, he erupted with a torrent of triumphant declarations and gestures. His spirited display went viral on YouTube and stirred up controversy among purists who questioned his sportsmanship.
“I think the people like to see a reaction instead of watching somebody get up and throw a ball, turn around, walk back and do nothing,” Weber said. “The bowlers reacting to their shots and other people reacting to the bowler, that’s what makes a great tournament.”
Belmonte said Weber’s theatrics during matches belie his personality beyond the lanes.
“He’s a bad boy on TV, but that’s just the competitive side of him,” Belmonte said. “You take him out of that environment and he’s a cuddly bear. He’ll offer any advice that you need, or if you need to be taken somewhere, he’ll happily drive you.”
Wes Malott, a Texas bowler nicknamed “The Beast,” finished second to Belmonte in the Masters last year at Carolier. Even though he grew up in the land of the Dallas Cowboys and “Friday Night Lights,” he gravitated toward bowling rather than football as a teen, watching greats like Bohn and Weber.
"I'm 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds but I had no desire to get into football,” said Malott, 37, a father of three. “I look at it and see some of these guys who are my age, maybe a little older who are dealing with all these concussions. I have no desire to get my kids into football. My oldest, Jordan, he’s 10 and he’s already bowling in the 190s. He got a high game of 287 last year."
Weber said he hopes one day tournaments like the Masters will migrate out of bowling centers and into arenas.
“If bowling ever gets big enough to have stadiums, that would be fantastic,” Weber said. “Until we get into the Olympics and they start thinking of bowling as a sport, we’re just going to be bowling for the 200 to 300 people that can get into the bowling center. I walk over 5,000 miles in a year on the approach (to the foul line) and carry over 50 tons of weight. If that’s not being athletic and being the best at what you do, the people who think that bowling is not a sport are idiots.”
In addition to the action on the lanes during the Masters, there will be a series of special events including a fundraiser Feb. 21 called the Strike Clinic. Bohn, Petraglia and other pros will offer a two-hour crash course in pin decimation, with proceeds benefiting two charities: Bowlers to Veterans Link and CancerCare.
While most Super Bowl spectators gazed at distant figures huddling and sprinting, the fans at the Masters are going to be seated in bleachers closely corralled around the lanes.
“You go to a lot of other sporting events, you can’t get near these guys,” Bohn said. “You can’t walk by the guy and say, ‘I’m sorry you missed that field goal attempt.’ With us, you can walk right past the best bowler in the world at any given time and ask a question. We interact with the fans and you’ll see bowlers going out to dinner at the restaurants on Route 1.
“I usually invite a bunch of the Japanese bowlers to come to my house for dinner one night. This year, I’m inviting the European players over.”