The game is played on a rectangular outdoor bowling green, or pitch, of natural or artificial grass, divided into parallel playing strips called rinks. First, the game competitors, who can be singles or teams, flip a coin to see who wins the mat. The winning skip, that is, the winning captain, chooses which side to start from and rolls the jack, also called the kitty, a small round white ball, to the other end of the green. Once it stops, it is centered and the other players begin playing what is termed an end taking turns rolling their bowls, asymmetric black balls, trying to get them to come as close to the jack as possible, and building up a cluster of bowls around the jack termed the head. Are you with me?
Bowls can curve outside the rink boundary, but must come to rest within the rink boundary. Bowls falling into the ditch are dead and removed from play. Except, and this is important, in the event they have touched the jack on their way. Touchers are marked with chalk and remain alive and in play even if they are in the ditch.
Also if the jack is knocked into the ditch, it is still alive unless it is out of bounds which results in a dead end which is normally replayed although in international rules the jack is respotted in the center of the rink. Still following?
After all the balls have been bowled (four bowls in singles, more in teams), the distance of the closest ball to the jack is measured. Points or shots are given to the player for each bowl he has closer than his competitor’s nearest bowl. For example, if a competitor has bowled two bowls closer to the jack than their opponent’s nearest, they are awarded two points. Then the game is repeated with the bowls being bowled in the opposite direction. In a single’s game, the winner is the first one to score 21 points.
If you’ve followed all of this, you are probably ready to play lawn bowls, also called lawn bowling!
Lawn bowls or lawn bowling is a sport you still see played in New Zealand, although its popularity has fallen off, having peaked from around 1960-1980. You still see lawn bowling greens and clubs in city or public parks and an attempt is being made to pitch it to younger crowds since it has a reputation of being a sport only for older individuals.
Lawn bowls has been played in England since the 1200’s. It became popular in Scotland in the 1800’s and was brought to New Zealand in 1860’s.
While taking a photo of the lawn bowling sign in nearby Tauranga, I parked in the Tauranga Bowling Club (Inc) parking lot. The manager came out to see what I was doing and then invited me in for a tour.
We toured the clubhouse, which included an eating area and bar, a trophy case and brass plaques on the walls listing the lawn bowling champions back from what seemed like before when the Maori had inhabited the land. Then we toured the mats where a number of games were being played. Everybody was friendly and upbeat. They made it look easier than I think it actually was.
“Come back on Tuesday afternoon,” the manager said. “Bring your wife and we’ll set you up and you can see if you like it,” he added.
“I don’t have to wear a completely white outfit,” I kidded. In its heyday, lawn bowlers traditionally wore white.
“No longer necessary,” he promised. And after thanking him, I left.
Rebecca and I had actually been introduced to lawn bowling on our first visit to New Zealand. While walking around the beautiful botanic gardens in Queenstown, we stopped to watch at the local lawn bowling center. Groups of individuals and teams were competing with that cheery attitude that marks much of New Zealand life. A team with lightning bolts on their shirts, perhaps electricians or “sparkies” as they are called here, was playing another team. I told Rebecca if we lived here, her hospital might have a team and she would have to take up lawn bowls to fit in. She cringed. Even though it was relatively early in the day, a certain amount of beer was already being imbibed which seemed to take the edginess off the game, as well as account for some of the aberrant tosses.
Between games, an elderly gentleman kindly explained to Rebecca and me the ins and outs of the game. Then we watched as he effortlessly glided his bowls close to the jack.
“We really have never seen lawn bowling before. We don’t have it in the United States,” Rebecca told him during the next break.
“Yes you do,” the man interjected a bit harshly, “It’s really quite common there.”
Both of us having lived most of our lives in the United States, we can assure you that lawn bowling is NOT quite common.
“Well, at least it’s not common where we live,” Rebecca tactfully added.
“They play it throughout the entire Midwest,” the man advised us not to be dissuaded and looking a bit more peevish. “They play it in all the towns.”
Having also spent a fair amount of time in the Midwest, I can safely say I have never EVER seen lawn bowling.
“Hmmm,” Rebecca smiled. We left it at that.
Further research did verify that lawn bowling is, or rather has been known to be played in the United States. One USA lawn bowling website (perhaps the gentleman had seen this same website) did claim – “If you are driving or walking around just about any town or city, chances are you will often see lawn bowling being happily played.” Not.
More recently we saw a New Zealand ad promoting lawn bowls urging us to look out for ‘have-a-go’ days, or “If you’re up for a laugh this summer, grab a couple of mates and play in the ‘Mates in Bowls’ social league.”