Converting Your Game – Spares Aren’t for Sissies – technics by the pro’s

John Jowdy

Graduating from being a good player to a great one comes down to making spares–but as some great strike-ball players have demonstrated, that’s easier said than done

YOU MIGHT NOT BELIEVE IT, but there was a time when Joe Bowler couldn’t pick up a ball, roll it down a well-manicured lane at his local alley, convert strike after strike, and average 220 with precious little effort. Today’s powerful strike balls might make for a sexier show, but they do little to lend value to a most important aspect of bowling: the spare game.

Ed Bourdase, one of the quality shotmakers on the PBA tour during the 1960s and ’70s, once said, “Spares are for sissies.” By virtue of his utter disdain for converting spares, the talented Californian won but three titles and was stamped as one of the greatest underachievers in PBA annals. Disregarding anything but full racks, Bourdase literally threw away titles. He had a particularly loathsome attitude toward 10-pin leaves on seemingly good pocket hits. His indifference toward spare conversions, mainly due to a weakness in his mental approach, undoubtedly prevented him from taking his place among the top performers of his generation.

Although Bourdase stood out among those who have dismissed the importance of spares, many other PBA members have similarly failed to get the most out of their games for the same reason. Every season for the past 10 years, I’ve chosen a team of PBA players who are “Miserable In Spare Situations” (MISS). The Jowdy All-Miss team features numerous PBA bowlers who are outstanding strike-shot artists but, due mostly to their inability to convert spares, fail to enter the winner’s circle. As you can imagine, my All-Miss team stirs up quite a bit of controversy, particularly among those who have been selected. And as expected, All-Miss members’ deflated egos make them become indignant and question their selection. Nevertheless, ball reps and observers close to the PBA scene say my choices are almost always right on the money.

Kelly Coffman, generally acknowledged as the possessor of the strongest strike ball on tour, twirled his high-powered missile for 12 years without a single title. He was particularly susceptible to 10-pin leaves, and although he was able to crack the top five on television finals, his inability to convert spares cost him many a victory in his career.

Eugene McCune, unquestionably one of the most talented players on tour, can hook a ball from one end of the lane to another; he also can throw the ball fast, medium, slow, straight, or back it up. Basically, he can do whatever he wants–except pick up spares. McCune throws at single-pin spares with tremendous speed, straight and hard (as suggested by leading instructors and bowling manuals), yet he is still among the worst spare shooters on tour. As a result, he is winless in his 14 years on tour.

Brian LeClaire, a 15-year pro, is a perennial All-Miss member. Like Coffman and McCune, he is outstanding in strike situations but is practically helpless at spare conversions. LeClaire’s winless record on the PBA tour is a testament to his inability to convert key spares.

R.D. Miller Jr. has been a touring pro for only five years, but in this short span he’s managed to make the All-Miss team four times. The Danville, Ill., native can strike with the best of them but is in a class by himself when it comes to missing spares. Needless to say, Miller has yet to come close to a PBA title.

Norm Titus showed signs of brilliance at times over the course of his seven-year careen On several occasions he’d lead a tournament during the early rounds, but with a penchant for missing seemingly easy spares he managed to eliminate himself from contention at crunch time. Titus withdrew from PBA competition in 1999 and, like many other All-Miss members, was winless during his career.

Lee Vanderhoef has been a PBA touring player for three years. His strike ball is as explosive as anyone’s, but he is extremely vulnerable in spare situations. However, at age 22, Vanderhoef has an opportunity to concentrate on this phase of the game and possibly become a consistent winner in the future.

Joe Firpo spent 17 years on the pro circuit and had but one title to his credit, a doubles championship with Del Warren. Firpo had all the ingredients of a real champion: His stroke was strong, smooth, and effortless, and his balance was almost perfect. Firpo possessed a potent strike ball and showed flashes of greatness. In fact, he was a perennial finalist during his next-to-last year on tour and performed brilliantly year after year in the ABC Masters competition. Nevertheless, Firpo’s inability to record a singles victory on the PBA tour can be attributed directly to his weak spare game.

Len Blakely, another perennial All-Miss member, also gave up the PBA tour after numerous winless seasons. Blakely bowled his way out of several championship opportunities, due primarily to spare deficiencies.

Even PBA champions aren’t impervious to spare shooting-induced slumps. In fact, several titlists have given up the tour as a result of such woes.

Bob Spalding, whose booming strike ball was as explosive as any on tour, managed a couple of victories during his career. However, his spare game was woefully weak and chased him into retirement.

Bob Vespi, a 10-year pro, was extremely impressive in his PBA tour debut. He applied a bent-elbow delivery with a cupped wrist and threw the ball slow, covering 10 to 15 boards with this unique style. His strike ball was incredibly successful, but like the gorilla golfer who hits every shot 400 yards–including putts–Vespi covered 10 to 15 boards on every spare shot as well. His 10-pin efforts were an exercise in futility. For years, Vespi and Coffman were far and away the most anemic 10-pin converters on the PBA tour. Like Coffman, Vespi gave up the tour several years ago before returning in 1999 with little or no success, primarily because he still exhibited a spare deficiency in his game.

Scott Alexander recorded one title in a 12-year career, the PBA National Championship at Toledo in 1995. Nonetheless, Alexander was a regular member of the Jowdy All-Miss team. Every spare he confronted was an adventure, and in due time his incompetence at this phase of the game resulted in his retirement.

There are once-prominent members of the All-Miss team who have mended their ways and overcome their spare-play weaknesses. Not surprisingly, these players have elevated their games to higher levels and have taken their place among regular title contenders during the past two years.

Ryan Shafer, a former All-Miss regular, has become one of the best spare shooters in the game over the past three years. Shafer, whose game is anything but textbook, possesses one of the most destructive strike shots on the PBA tour despite the fact that he has little or no knee bend. He rears up at the foul line on every shot but executes to near-perfection. The 1987 Rookie of the Year came into his own in 2000, capturing two titles and cashing in 15 of 19 tournaments. He had an average of 219.50, which was second to that of Chris Barnes and higher than those of Norm Duke, Walter Ray Williams Jr., and Parker Bohn III. In addition to his two firsts, Shafer had one second, two thirds, one fourth, and one fifth in 2000, a record that earned him a share of the BOWLING DIGEST Men’s Pro Bowler of the Year award.

Dave Wodka, once a journeyman on the PBA tour, has seemingly conquered his problems with the spare game. A PBA touring player for 11 years, Wodka won his first title in 1999, at Taylor, Mich., and has shown tremendous improvement over the past couple seasons, particularly in his spare shooting.

The top stars, players who enjoy season after season of:success, have mastered the art of spare conversion. For example, the top three players on tour–Williams, Duke, and Barnes–are superb spare shooters.

Williams, whose hand-eye coordination is second to none, is unquestionably one of the greatest spare shooters in bowling history. Unlike Coffman and Vespi, Williams is a no-nonsense sparemaker. He throws the ball straight with deadly accuracy. He destroys 10-pin leaves with almost automatic precision. His penchant for hitting the pocket with amazing regularity prevents him from having to shoot at difficult leaves–anything more than 2-pin conversions are a rarity. Williams is seldom confronted with Greek Churches, wide-open splits, and other ugly stands that are results of the wide-arcing strike balls delivered by power players.

The same holds true for Duke. The native Texan has one of the best hands in the game. He can do almost anything he desires: hook it, curve it, straighten it out, and back it up. Like Williams, he applies straight shots for spares with deadly accuracy. Duke is definitely one of the top spare shooters in this or any era.

Barnes is one of the greatest talents to come along in the past 20 years. The former Team USA star has been an instant success on the PBA tour; in just two years, he’s taken a place among the top five players on tour. The reason for his swift ascent is simple: Barnes is brimming with raw talent. Although the Wichita State graduate failed to record a victory in 2000, his statistics belied his true accomplishments–and disregarding titles, Barnes’ achievements were second to none. He cashed in 18 of 19 tournaments, was second in earnings, first in average, and had 17 top-24 finishes out of 19 tournaments, with two seconds, two thirds, three fourths, and three fifths. In addition to having the luxury of possessing one of the most effective strike balls in the game, Barnes is among the top spare shooters on the PBA tour. That tells me this young player will be around–and consistently at the top of the standings–for some time to come.

Spares are vital for successful scoring. Remember, you strike for show and spare for dough.

RELATED ARTICLE: Addressing Your Spares: A Helpful Guide

THROUGHOUT THE HISTORY OF bowling, spare conversions have separated winners from losers. How? Simple–it’s merely a matter of calculations. The inability to convert a spare is a minimum loss of 11 pins, negating a double and reducing a projected 200 game to 180-plus. More significantly, players who can do little more than unleash potent strike balls often transform 230, 240, and 250 games into games in the low 200s. In the meantime, great spare shooters like Walter Ray Williams Jr., Norm Duke, and Chris Barnes maximize their scores and further separate themselves from the All-Miss members.

There are numerous spare leaves in bowling. Most of them are convertible from three basic angles–the left side, the middle, and the right side. For example, for righthanders, all spares on the left side–the 7-pin, the 1-2-4-7, or any combination of spares containing these pins–should be addressed from the right side of the lane. This includes the 2-4-8, the 2-4-5-8, or, any accompanying pins. The second arrow is normally the angle board for spare conversions for righthanders on leftside spare shots. The same exercise should be applied by lefthanders from the left side of the approach for combinations on the right side of the lane.

All spares on the right side for righthanders should be attempted from the left side of the approach. This includes the 10-pin, the 6-10, the 3-6-10, the 1-3-6-10, or any other pins grouped in this combination. The third arrow should be the target area for these spares. The same angle is recommended for lefthanders on their side of the lane. However, this philosophy is not etched in stone. Lane conditions and oil patterns may necessitate alternate angles that must be figured out according to ball reaction.

The second arrow is also recommended for spares for the center angle. These are spares that involve the 5-pin and combinations that feature the 5-pin as the key.

All spare combinations that do not include sleepers (pins that are behind the lead pin) should be attempted with minimum hook, particularly single- and two-pin leaves that are close together. Masterful spare shooters apply this philosophy in all spare situations, except spares with sleepers or spares that require additional hooking action to cover pins behind the front-line pins.

However, baby splits (the 3-10 on the right side and 2-7 on the left side) present a different challenge. You must be adept at killing those shots; that is, applying deflection on the ball or perhaps throwing a backup ball that will deflect from the 3-pin to the 10-pin for righthanders or the 2-pin to the 7-pin for lefthanders.

No matter which angle is used, there is one primary factor that must be adhered to: Just as it is in strike shots, it’s imperative that you walk in the direction of your target!

COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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