Anyone who watched either of the two telecasts on which Tommy Jones appeared last season - the USBC Masters and the 2009 Earl Anthony Medford Classic - might have wondered what happened to the Tommy Jones whom the PBA named the 30th greatest player in history just as he also prepared to turn only 30 years old, the Tommy Jones who won his first ten titles more quickly than anyone in the history of the Professional Bowlers Association. This Tommy Jones, quickly frustrated with himself after leaving a five count in the first frame and chopping a spare in the next at the Medford show, certainly was not the former PBA Player of the Year whose every appearance on television is almost certain to culminate in yet another title. This was a shaken Tommy Jones who spent his first half of the season in the bleachers on Friday nights watching the final round of match play from the same place the fans do. But after some instruction from renowned bowling coach Mark Baker and a strong showing at the recently-completed PBA World Series of Bowling that included a telecast appearance at the 2009 Motor City Open, Jones is back to prove to himself and his fans that he still belongs in the top five on tour. In this first part of our interview with the PBA star, Jones candidly discusses his struggles last season, the blow to his confidence that he endured as a result, how he has gotten back on his feet, and why anyone - including the best in the world - is susceptible to self-doubt.
Your last title was in March of 2008 at the Geico Classic. You made a couple of telecast appearances last season, but it just wasn't a typical Tommy Jones year. What were you struggling with?TJ: Well, I tried to switch to 15 pounds just to take some stress off my body. You know, with getting a little older and everything. But without that extra weight the top of my swing got way too steep and what happened was I started trying to muscle it trying to bowl the way I had the previous 5 or 6 years. Then after that I just started bowling scared, I kind of lost confidence.
You went to Mark Baker for help after the first half - what did you work on with him?TJ: Yeah Mark Baker and Del Ballard, those two helped a ton. Ebonite has a great relationship with Mark Baker and we know how great of a coach he is. He just has a great eye, he spots what's going wrong immediately, and it helped immediately. I finished 10th in Baltimore and then 7th at the next tournament and 11th the next week, so he's very good.
What makes Mark such a great teacher?TJ: His eye. He just has a great eye for everything. You know, he loves to bowl and he's a great bowler. The man had some back issues and had back surgery so he could no longer bowl on tour. And rather than getting upset like a lot of people might have he wanted to do something else, and he learned how to be a great coach and wherever he coaches, his eye for everything is unbelievable.
What did Del Ballard Jr. help you with?TJ: Del's always been good about seeing things, Del sees things a bit differently. Del saw the end result, Mark kind of saw why it was happening. Del is a great coach in his own right and probably over time has helped me more than anybody else with him being my ball rep. on tour the first two years when I was going through the learning process, and then just getting to be good friends with him and his family. He has helped me a ton.
When you opened your first two frames at the Medford show in January, do you think that had anything to do with the fact that those were your first shots on TV in nearly a year?TJ: A little bit. The lanes had transitioned a little bit on the show. They transitioned a little more than I thought they would and I just made a bad ball choice. Wes had thrown a 240 in the previous game and I thought the scores were going to be high and that that was the right ball for that situation. So I went with that ball rather than the other ball that was a little more controllable. I didn't make a very good shot the first frame and chopped the spare the second frame, and you don't want to do that against Wes, especially last year when he was on the rise. He pretty much beat us hands-down. I'm good friends with Wes and it was great to see him have success.
Tommy, you mentioned confidence issues earlier, and I think some people might wonder how it is possible for a guy who has already won 12 titles at just 30 years old and who was already named the 30th greatest player in PBA history to suffer confidence problems. What would you say to those people?TJ: Well, I think it's the expectation factor. I know what people expect of me and I know what I expect of myself. I felt that I really needed to get back on the show and prove that I was back and ready. But you just bowl through it. Everybody has their runs and the people that bowl through it are the ones that are out there the longest. We all know Norm went through it, Walter went through it. Everybody goes through it. You just dig down and find a way to get through it.
What would you say to the amateur bowler who wonders how it's possible for even the man who was voted the second-greatest player of all-time, Walter Ray Williams Jr., to go through those tougher times?TJ: Well, the game is always evolving. The balls change, the oil changes, they change lane machines, they change the patterns a little bit. Even though we have the names patterns now they still change from year to year. It's just like back in the day when they switched from plastic to urethane and then from urethane to reactive, certain guys didn't fare as well. And I think that now the balls just roll a little bit differently, and there are so many different balls out there that when guys have to find the ball that matches their game. And as soon as one of them gets confident, they can dominate. These are the best bowlers in the world and they are out there for that reason.
Speaking of urethane and plastic balls, what are your thoughts on the concept of a plastic ball tournament?TJ: It was a good idea. I wasn't so keen on it at first I didn't really like it I didn't think that they would switch things back in other sports and go back in time. But I think it was a lot of fun to bowl I just didn't like the fact that we were bowling 54 games after a major tournament but it's not my call I just showed up and bowled and had a good time. It was fun to be playing on a level playing field with everyone for once. The people who were there liked it but then it got a little repetitive in their mind because there were no big moves to be made which is going to happen with plastic balls. I think the TV show was good it brought perspective into the diff. in bowling balls and that's what we are trying to do, educate the public.
Bowling is not the only sport in which technology has has a profound effect on performance. It's true in many sports, especially sports like golf or tennis. Do you think there has been a disproportionate focus on technological advancements in bowling as opposed to other sports?TJ: Not necessarily. I just think that lane conditions have not kept up with the bowling balls. It's the same thing in tennis but it's hard to compare the only thing you can really compare it to is golf. Look how much they lengthened the golf courses because of technology and how much longer Augusta plays than it used to, where they put the hazards and the rough and how much they let it grow. In bowling it just doesn't seem like conditions have kept up. The only tournament where we use modern balls and still have low scores is the U.S. Open where the condition is so flat and everybody has to play in. We're all playing the same part of the lane but it's just hard. I wish they could make the patterns a lot harder so we could use the new balls and keep the scoring pace even across the board - not just the PBA but across the board. I understand people just want to go in and bowl league just like people play the same golf course all the time because it's a little easier and they can't lose their golf ball, but that's just not challenging. The sport is very difficult, it's something you'll never master just like golf, and people need to realize that.
What do you think will be the next big technological advancement in the sport of bowling?
TJ: It's hard to say I would like to see them find a way to show the oil on the lane regardless of whether it's a pair of glasses or lights. That way people can see it when you go to a golf course and the golf course is hard you can see it. Right now in bowling you can't see it.
*Courtesy of bowl.com