Zen and the Art of Lawn Bowling
The Secret City on

Meet some of the players of this meditative sport, learn some history -- and revel in our columnist's humbling defeat.

     I am a natural. A future champion. A national team hero in the making. I have just rolled a "bowl" 80 feet down a grass rink.

     Then, just as I've planned, the bowl breaks left, like an arm caught in an outswinging door. It streaks, like an Oscar protester, toward its target, a white orb about 2BD inches in diameter known as a "jack." My bowl rams the jack and both objects careen in harmony. Fifty feet away, on Wilshire Boulevard, a municipal bus roars by. One day, I just know, those same decibels will come from the cheers of a sold-out stadium crowd.

     But then, perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.

     I am taking my first free lawn bowling lesson on a Wednesday afternoon in late January. I'm at Douglas Park in Santa Monica, and my teacher is Alan Goodnoff, president of the Santa Monica Lawn Bowls Club. Last year Goodnoff made it to the finals of the Lawn Bowling National Open Tournament. He wears a snappy powder blue varsity jacket with his club's logo embroidered on the front and back.

     "I started bowling about 14 years ago and then I got arthritis," Goodnoff says. "I got the right anti-inflammatory and I'm back lawn bowling again, which is just the most wonderful thing in the world for me."

     Goodnoff works as a key grip in the film business, where, he says, the pace is fast and the environment tense. On the bowling green, life is different.

     "The whole thing is like Zen," he says. "When I come out here and roll the bowls it just (puts) my mind at ease."

* * *
     Between two and eight people can lawn bowl at once, in singles, pairs, triples and quads formats.

The bowling green is 120 feet long by 20 feet wide and contains six rinks. The object of the game is to locate your bowls closest to the jack, which is rolled to the far end of the rink at the beginning of the game. Each participant has four bowls. After they've all been rolled, one point is awarded to the player or team with the bowl closest to the jack. If one side has the two closest bowls, they receive two points, and so on. Matches conclude after 14, 16 or 18 rounds, called "ends."

     Lawn bowling, or at least some version of it, reportedly began in ancient Egypt. The Greeks played it. The Romans played it. The British were big into it, and as Goodnoff points out, spread the game to their colonial outposts. Oliver Cromwell was a bowler. So was Thomas Paine. Notorious head-chopper Henry VIII had a green constructed in his castle, even though he forbade his subjects from playing, fearing it would lead them to vice. Another story says 13th century British peasants were forbidden to bowl because it distracted them from practicing archery, a more useful skill to posses in case of war.

     Even more famously, but historically debatable, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Frances Drake were said to be lawn bowling on July 19, 1588. That's when the Spanish Armada was spotted off the English coast. Drake, the legend goes, coolly finished his game before setting sail to vanquish the invading navy.

* * *
     Back at Santa Monica's Douglas Park, nine players are present, in addition to Goodnoff and me. One decides to practice. The other eight play a match. They are all senior citizens, and they are all clad in white, with the occasional light tan slacks. They look like the cast of "Cocoon," though dressed by the costume designer of "The English Patient." They are active, upbeat, friendly and encouraging to a newcomer -- even though I'm wearing blue sneakers, green pants and a purple shirt.

     Nancy Adelson is one of the participants. She's been playing here for seven or eight years; she was the club's 2000 Bowler of the Year.

     "People here often compare it to pool, billiards, (and golf) putting, in that it takes fine motor skills, precision, concentration and a lot of focus," Adelson says. "And a competitive spirit. You have to enjoy winning."

     One of her partners today is Bud Wakeling. He's a retired Los Angeles City schoolteacher who coached football and played handball and tennis. Now he lawn bowls five or six days a week, either here or at nearby Holmby Park.

     "It's a lot of fun," Wakeling says. "It gets you out, it's a wonderful exercise."

     Dave Lambert also plays. He's wearing a Mercedes Benz cap.

     "So far nobody has been able tell me how to control how far the bowl goes," Lambert notes. "They say the only way is just do it for three years." He laughs, adding, "I've been here for two years and obviously it's going to take at least one more."

     Lambert also plays tennis four days per week. "As I get older and see my tennis buddies dropping off of old age, I begin to get more and more into this," he confides. "But there's no reason it shouldn't be a young person's game."

     Which, according to Goodnoff, it is in many other countries. And which, in a roundabout way, brings the story back to me.

     Following my auspicious jack-knocking debut, I spend the next two hours trying to come within 10 feet of that white ball that keeps looking smaller and more distant. Sometimes I hold the bowl the wrong way, and it curves off into a neighboring rink. Sometimes I send the bowl into the shallow ditch that borders the green. Often, I get distracted by the Jack in the Box fast food restaurant across the street.

     Goodnoff reassures me that I'm doing fine. In fact, he tells me -- a couple of times -- that at my age, if I just stick with the sport for a couple of years, I could probably make the U.S. National Team. I imagine he's joking, but the flattery still puffs me up.

     As our session comes to a close, I challenge Goodnoff to play a single end. I roll first and send a magnificent arcing backhand that arrives at a gentle rest 25 centimeters from the jack. Goodnoff's best roll is 30 centimeters away. I win a point. I am the greatest. I will make the U.S. squad, I believe. Then, because we need to return to the other side of the green anyway, Goodnoff and I play one more end.

     He wins, of course. We gather up the equipment and shake hands. I look at the fast food restaurant and figure, maybe I better stick with what I already know.