Friday, June 6, 2003 | 10:52 a.m.
Ron Kantowski is a Las Vegas Sun sports writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (702) 259-4088.
Bowling might be the one sport -- more on that later -- where you can drink a beer with one hand, and smoke a cigar with the other. That fact alone should make it popular with about 90 percent of the male population.
It's also one of the few sports where the (190) Average Joe is permitted to line up against the best touring pros. Perhaps that might explain why bowling isn't as popular as it used to be, at least with blowhards.
Walk into any neighborhood bar or tavern, and you're likely to encounter some former big man on campus or hometown hero reliving his Glory Days, blowing smoke at anybody willing to ingest some that the only thing that kept him out of The Bigs was a bum knee or a raw deal.
That's why you've got to love events such as the PBA's Senior Storm U.S. Open, which concludes at the Castaways at 7:30 tonight with the stepladder finals. It's one of the few sporting endeavors where amateurs are encouraged to mix it up with professionals.
Of the 251 bowlers entered in the Open, 21 were amateurs who reside in Clark County. One, a follicle-challenged man with a friendly face and pleasant demeanor named Ron DeGroat, started Thursday's final 24-game qualifying block fourth on the leaderboard, in the midst of names he has admired and guys he aspired to be almost as long as he can remember.
"Only for about 40 years," DeGroat, 56, said when asked how long he had fantasized about a life on tour.
He said there were only four things that kept him from pursuing one as a young man.
"Wife, job, mortgage and car (payment)," he said with a grin as the wide as the 7-10.
His wife died 10 years ago, prompting DeGroat to move from Oklahoma City to Las Vegas. His job is bowling, and our city, with its many High Roller and megabucks tournaments open only to amateurs, is conducive to seeking the pot at the end of the rainbow -- or at least the 10th frame.
Also, "The local seniors have a pretty good pot game around town -- you know, where we bowl for matchbook covers," DeGroat said.
As for the mortgage and car payment, DeGroat was hoping to put a little extra toward each. He was 6-2 in the first round of match play Thursday night, rising from 10th to fifth in the standings.
If the touring pros are upset with amateurs such as DeGroat for taking food out of their mouths, they sure have a funny way of showing it. During Thursday's early session, one of DeGroat's playing partners was Teata Semiz, a 69-year-old PBA legend from New Jersey, and the two slapped palms after virtually every strike and spare.
"Man, I really want to give credit to the touring members. Those guys are in great shape," DeGroat said, patting a tummy a tad rounder than most.
"That's why bowling is a sport," winked a spectator who was eavesdropping on our conversation.
DeGroat went on to say that it's a shame sponsors and television have turned their backs on the guys who made bowling popular a generation ago. None of the 11 senior tour events is televised -- "I don't want this to sound like a negative comment, but even the ladies are on TV," DeGroat said -- and save for the Days Inn motel chain, the old pros have been able to attract few corporate backers from outside the industry.
The first-place check for winning the Open, one of the senior tour's two marquee events, is a modest $20,000. The last "cash spot" pays a measly $900, and given it costs $400 to enter, most of the players probably would have been better off walking around the corner to the sports book and betting their entry fee on the Braves-Rangers game. Which, I might add, some appeared to be doing.
Bowling, even at its most skillful level, often is poked fun at, and unless you understand the nuances of the game, such as lane conditions and the minute differences in bowling balls, qualifying is remindful of watching golf pros hit 6-irons off the practice tee. It gets repetitive after a while.
But it was neat to get reacquainted with the names that I heard Chris Schenkel call so many times on the Saturday afternoons of my youth -- Petraglia, Soutar, Dickinson, Laub, Pappas. And other than the fishing lures hanging from Guppy Troup's earlobes, and his multicolored slacks that reminded me of a sno-cone experiment go awry, it was the best show in Las Vegas considering the price (free).
Actually, even crossing Troup's path was enlightening, as I now know who inspired Ernie McCracken, Bill Murray's character in "Kingpin."
On my way out of the bowling center, I nearly bumped into a guy clutching a rolled-up copy of "Pacific Bowler," who was bragging to his buddies about all the 260 games he rolled in the Thursday night mixed doubles league back in Fresno.
I had to resist the temptation to ask where he was four days ago, when guys like Ron DeGroat were standing in line to pay their entry fee.