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Roll models

The Sun City Center lawn bowling club stands out for its large, well-kept facilities and its die-hard players.

[Times photos: Skip O"Rourke]
Sun City Center lawn bowlers came out in their traditional whites for a two-day match against players from Kings Point.

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

SUN CITY CENTER -- Gretchen Meixner caught her first glimpse of lawn bowling during a trip to Australia in 1976.

The sight of players decked out in head-to-toe white -- brows furrowed as they bent forward to toss a small, lopsided ball toward an even smaller ball -- struck her as very odd.

"I thought they were all nuts!" said Meixner, 79. "Out there in the broiling sun, all in white. I thought, 'How foolish!' They looked like penguins."

Today Meixner is a penguin convert, having played lawn bowling for the past seven years.
Players roll these "bowls" as close as possible to the "jack," a small white ball to win at lawn bowling.

She's got plenty of company in Sun City Center. About 260 of the retirement mecca's residents are dedicated to the ancient game favored by King Henry VII's soldiers.

This week, 24 Sun City Center lawn bowlers came out in their traditional tournament whites, for a two-day match against 24 players from Kings Point.

Under a clear blue sky, the bronze-legged players rolled their 3-pound bowls from one end of the 120-foot-long rink to the other, in a quest to get as close as possible to the little white ball known as a jack.

To outsiders, the game looked easy. But a slight change in wind, a sprinkle of water on the short grass, too many feet stomping on the greens, could turn a sure win into a nail-biting tie-breaker.
Danielle Goodwin of Kings Point sports a little flair with her tournament whites as she waits her turn in lawn bowling.

By tournament's end, Sun City Center's players beat their Kings Point competitors by four games.

"That's OK," said Mavis Ward, 78, who comes to Kings Point every winter from her native England. "There's always tomorrow."

Most of these lawn bowlers play at least four days a week. Some play five or six times; a few die-hards have been known to play twice a day.

They range from 60-something to just-turned-90. Some have bad hips, rickety knees. Others wear defibrillators, or have the tell-tale scars of open-heart surgery.

They play anyway.

Charlie Schwallie, who moved to Sun City Center nine years ago, can't swing a golf club anymore because he's had both shoulders replaced. But he can roll a mean bowl.

"I look at this like going a cocktail party," said Schwallie, 76. "You come, you mingle for a couple of hours."

Besides, he said, this is a lot cheaper than golf. Membership dues for Sun City Center's lawn bowling club are less than $100 a year, and a set of four bowls costs about $250 -- considerably less than a set of new golf clubs.
Bob Mendrala, 62, of Kings Point rolls his ball.

Chuck Mather moved to Sun City Center 11 years ago with plans to putter his days away on the golf course.

But before he could sign up for his first 18 holes, a neighbor took Mather lawn bowling.

"I've never golfed since," said Mather, 76. "I just love lawn bowling so much!"

He's not alone, and he's certainly not the first.

The game dates back to the Dark Ages. King Henry VII outlawed it because too many of his soldiers were choosing lawn bowling over archery practice. Legend has it that Sir Francis Drake was in the middle of a game when he learned the Spanish Armada was approaching for an attack.

Today the game remains more popular in the British Isles, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa than in the United States.

In England, children play lawn bowling in youth leagues. In the United States, it's grandparents who love the game.

The United States Lawn Bowls Association has about 5,000 members, concentrated in retiree-heavy states like Florida, Arizona and California.

The Sun City Center lawn bowling club stands out because it's one of the only ones in the country with such large, well-kept facilities.
Peggy Lang, 67, of Kings Point rejoices when her "bowl" lands close to the "jack" during a tournament Monday against Sun City Center.
Winter resident David Burbery said the greens here are on par with those in his native England, where young children play in youth leagues.

"What impressed me the most was how everybody here always plays to win," he said. "Yet there's such camaraderie. It doesn't matter if you're English, Scottish, Australian, American -- we're all lawn bowlers."

A $300,000 clubhouse being built east of the greens will add to the lawn bowling club's luster, and has club president Ron Wilhelm plotting a new member recruitment drive.

A few years ago, there were about 500 people in the club.

Some members died (including more than a dozen last year); others were Canadians and Brits who saw stopped coming down for the winter because of political and financial concerns. And new Sun City Center residents, many of them just retired and moving into the community's new $300,000-plus homes, aren't interested in this game, Wilhelm said.

"It's like black olives," Meixner said. "You like it or you don't. It looks like an idiot could play it. But when you get out on this green and understand all the subtle things that go into it, you're hooked. Then before you know it, you're out here every day."

-- Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 661-2443 or .

Lawn Bowling 101
The lawn bowling ball, or "bowl," rests in the hand of Juanita Derr of Sun City Center.

Origins: Lawn bowling dates back to the Dark Ages and remains most popular in England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. During the 1300s, King Henry VII outlawed the game because his soldiers were playing too much, neglecting their archery practice. Legend has it Sir Francis Drake was in the middle of a game in 1588 when he learned the Spanish Armada was about to attack.

Object of the game: To roll your bowls (they resemble bowling balls but are elliptical, and biased so that they curve) as close as possible to the jack, a small white ball.

Playing field: Lawn bowling is played on a green about 120 feet square, divided into eight rinks that allow eight games to be played at once.

Players: Games can be played between two teams of one to four players each.

Equipment: Each bowler has a set of four bowls that weigh about 3 pounds each and are usually black or brown.

Dress: Tradition requires competitors to wear white, but dress codes are generally more strict overseas than here and vary somewhat from country to country. In Australia, players must wear a hat, tie, blazer, trousers, long shirt and shoes in white or cream. Canadians wear black or brown shoes, and in some places in England, women's skirts are still measured to ensure they aren't too short.

Scoring: After all members of each team have rolled all their bowls from one end of the rink to the other, signaling the completion of an end, the bowl closest to the jack counts one point for its team. Every other bowl from that team that is closer to the jack than the opposing team's nearest bowl counts one additional point. A game can range anywhere from 12 to 18 or even 21 ends.

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