The noble sport of lawn bowling has a long and aristocratic history. Played by English notables as diverse as Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Scott, and Oliver Cromwell, it has featured in several historical legends from other parts of the world, as well – including one in which an Inca king was killed by a bowl thrown in anger by one of his subjects.
Although most lawn bowlers would disagree that the sport is almost the same as bocce ball, the major difference is simply that lawn bowling balls are weighted to one side and also known as “bias balls” whereas bocce balls are uniformly weighted. Lawn bowling essentially consists of rolling a ball along a grassy green towards a target, the “jack,” and attempting to get as close as possible; the many variations on this theme have been explored, in detail, in a number of written treatises.
The authoritative book, at least according to the book itself, on the topic of lawn bowling in the United States is the aptly if unimaginatively titled The American Lawn Bowler’s Guide. Not to imply that lawn bowlers in general lack imagination; on the contrary, describing the sport in terms of “its fabulous history, its fascinating lore, and its grand old traditions” seems to display creativity and imaginative scope far beyond the norm.
On the other hand, who are we to argue? After all, 91 Santa Barbarans can’t possibly be wrong.
Somewhat random as the number 91 may appear to be, it has a very specific significance: it refers to the number of founding members of the Santa Barbara Lawn Bowls Club (at that time, the MacKenzie Park Lawn Bowls Club). These Western pioneers of the “grand old” sport of bowls were a relatively diverse group, although as all were both physically active and sufficiently eccentric to found such a club, they also had a great deal in common.
In 1965, following a debate about the uses to which the newly renamed MacKenzie Park should be put, the city ordained two lawn bowling greens on the property. According to The MacKenzie Park Lawn Bowls Club: The First 40 Years, “the official ribbon cutting ceremony [of the MacKenzie Park Lawn Bowls Club] took place on Saturday, January 26, with over 200 people in attendance.” The membership is higher now, with 120 people currently listed as members of the Santa Barbara Lawn Bowls Club; the venue has also changed, and bowling now takes place at 1216 De la Vina Street.
In the intervening 42 years, the SBLBC has enjoyed a colorful history, filled with tournaments, resulting in glorious wins or tragic losses; fun-filled days on the green; and most importantly, perhaps, lawn bowling-themed limericks. The most prolific contributor of these has been Dick Singer, a member of the club. Although he, and several others, have written far too many to be reproduced here, one sample is offered for your delectation:
Age is no barrier it seems
To the skill that is seen on our greens.
In fact quite the cream, of our lawn bowling teams
Are ladies well out of their teens.
As Mr. Singer delicately points out, it’s more typically older people who participate in lawn bowling, although this doesn’t prevent new members from joining every year.
So what else, besides some continuing interest among older people, accounts for the relative longevity, in Santa Barbara, of this particular pastime? If we take The American Lawn Bowler’s Guide as a reliable source, as would seem reasonable, the answer might lie in the positive effects of lawn bowling. Apparently, it confers mental, physical and moral benefits, even on those who want none of the above and attempt merely to have a good time. The book states that “bowls is a clearer of mental cobwebs, and a rejuvenator of the weary brain.” In addition, “bowls is a promoter of physical health and moral force.” According to proponents of the activity, in fact, the game of bowls is a veritable fountain of youth, vitality, and health.
In addition to all of this, if you’ve ever walked by the bowling green, it looks like the players are having a hell of a lot of fun. Playing a game in the sunshine, with friends and family, can’t be bad, no matter how silly the local history of the game may be.
And of course, anyone who writes limericks has my blessing.
To learn how to bowl on the green, call the Santa Barbara Lawn Bowls Club at (805) 965-1773 or visit santabarbaralbc.org. For free lessons, offered on Tuesday and Thursday, contact Pearl and John Mulholland through the website.