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Wall Street Journal: Belmonte puts new spin on bowling
Jason Belmonte May Revolutionize the Sport If His Back Doesn't Give Out First
FOUNTAIN VALLEY, Calif. - A young Australian is almost single-handedly spurring a new age in bowling: He throws the ball with two hands.
With an easygoing charm to match his spiky brown hair and rock-star sunglasses, 25-year-old Jason Belmonte, bowling in a tournament here this week, could well reach new audiences for a sport many younger Americans associate with "The Big Lebowski" and beer bellies.
Jason Belmonte is the best-known practitioner of an unusual bowling style that's starting to gain converts among other pros.
He has quite a novel delivery. Rather than use one hand, he shovels it forward with both from the right side of his body as he slides to a stop at the lane's foul line. Mr. Belmonte plugs two fingers, but not the thumb, of his right hand into the ball's holes and uses his left hand to create extra spin.
The ball can top 600 revolutions per minute, up to 17% more rotation than the nearest elite one-armed competitor and twice what some other top pros generate. Ideally, the approach sends the ball flirting with the right edge of the lane before hooking sharply into the center and creating an explosion of pins. "When he hits the pocket, it's curtains," says John Jowdy, a coach since 1948. "The ball is very destructive."
Mr. Belmonte is the best-known practitioner of a style that's actually gaining converts. "We're only three or four in the world, and we're bowling so well. Imagine if there were 50 of us," he says. He occasionally competes with fellow two-hander Osku Palermaa, a Finnish pro, on the European circuit. In 2006, Ohioan Chaz Dennis became the youngest player to roll a perfect 300 game at the age of 10 using the technique, and the entire Bolivian national team adopted it last year. Even Walter Ray Williams Jr., the most decorated bowler in the Professional Bowlers Association in his 26th year on the tour, has started dabbling in it in competition.
Some see parallels in the unorthodox two-handed approach to track-and-field's Fosbury Flop -- named after the Olympic gold medalist whose backward leap permanently changed high jumping. But Mr. Belmonte has faced doubters on many sides. Some bowlers scoff at what they see as the PBA's favoritism toward him. Some think his little-studied form could injure young bowlers as they get older. And Mr. Belmonte has crossed paths with some old-timers who simply don't like the new style.
You might wonder why pro bowler Jason Belmonte bowls with two hands -- until you see the way his ball hits the pins.
He's a long way from Orange, a town 130 miles west of Sydney. As a toddler, Mr. Belmonte spent hours at the alley his parents own there. He says he started chucking balls down the lane with two hands at the age of 18 months. He started collecting paychecks in the sport at a Malaysian tournament when he was 16. Now he says his arm hurts and his scores suffer when he tries one-handed tosses.
Bowling could use a young star. The PBA was on network TV during its heyday in the 1970s. But it barely avoided bankruptcy less than a decade ago and must now settle for a revenue-sharing deal on ESPN, which means the cable-sports giant doesn't pay for the rights to air PBA events. "Bowling's lost its luster, and I think he could bring it back," says U.S. pro Mike Fagan.
It's a revolution fueled by YouTube. Clips of Mr. Belmonte's work even reached the bowling backwater of Bolivia, where national team members now consider him their idol, according to coach Bene Villa. Mr. Villa started a program last year called Proyecto Dos Manos, or Project Two Hands, to help jump-start his program. The entire squad quickly converted, and Mr. Villa says their scores have shot up in the months since.
Other bowlers have greeted Mr. Belmonte less warmly. A few even questioned whether using a second hand violates bowling's bylaws. (It doesn't.) More recently, Mr. Belmonte ruffled the feathers of some bowlers on the PBA, the sport's most prestigious circuit. Not long after Mr. Belmonte's surprisingly strong showing at the PBA World Championship in October, the organization offered him exemptions for a pair of December events that meant he could proceed straight to their advanced rounds without having to battle through the early rounds. The PBA typically spreads so-called commissioner's exemptions, no more than one per tournament, around to players who aren't regulars on the tour. It had never given a player two exemptions in the same season, much less in consecutive weeks.
"It really irritated a bunch of the players," says Mr. Williams. "I understand Jason's a very talented young player. But I think most of the players feel he should earn his way here."
Mr. Belmonte responded by saying that if the exemptions help him leapfrog a more deserving bowler, he will cede the spot.
"We thought he would bring a level of excitement to events that merited creating this exception for him," PBA president and CEO Fred Schreyer said.
Mr. Belmonte is spending a monthlong stint in the States, starting with this week's Dick Weber Open here in suburban Los Angeles. He's leaving the security of the lower-level European tour, where he says he can win more than $100,000 in a good year. But the potential upside is higher in the U.S. This week's tournament boasts a first prize of $35,000.
Mr. Belmonte placed 15th out of 79 bowlers in his group after his first five games Wednesday, leaving him with a chance of advancing to later rounds. He said after a smoke break that not being at the top of the heap didn't bother him: "I'm never a really good front-runner. I prefer to whip the horse on the last day."
Some doubters fear injuries will force two-handers out of the game prematurely. Mr. Jowdy, the veteran coach, says of bowlers like Messrs. Belmonte and Palermaa, "All you have to do is watch them. They put an awful, awful strain on their legs and their back." Mr. Belmonte says he has suffered no serious injuries, while the 25-year-old Mr. Palermaa admits to occasional but tolerable back pain.
Bob Rea, a longtime coach, fears an industry already struggling to attract younger players can ill-afford to risk losing more by encouraging a style whose long-term effects are unknown.
The style is so unusual, hardly any older bowlers exist to prove anyone right. Mr. Belmonte shrugs and refers to himself and other two-handers as "crash-test dummies." Coaches and trainers know so little about the effects that the U.S. Bowling Congress has recorded Mr. Belmonte bowling two-handed to study his mechanics. They're consulting with him on how to instruct proper technique, since so few coaches are experts in it.
Mr. Belmonte remains a work in progress. He blew away the field in the qualifying rounds at October's World Championship before stumbling in a head-to-head meeting with Chris Barnes, last season's PBA player of the year. But Mr. Barnes took note.
"At first glance it seems like a joke," he says. His opinion changed the more Mr. Belmonte hit his target. "Then it gets a little scary."
By Adam Thompson - Wall Street Journal
Write to Adam Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org