1. What tournament opportunities are available for individual competitive bowlers?
Competitive singles tournaments are a great test of your own bowling skills. In a team environment your other team members can make up the difference if you are having a bad day, but in a singles competitive environment, the spotlight is on you!
The best place to start would be one of the private tournaments offered in your area. These tournaments are either run by other bowlers, by a particular bowling center, or by a private organization. Flyers for these tournaments are usually available on the tournament organizer's website and/or Facebook page.
Some state and local USBC chapters also run competitive singles tournaments, in addition to the team tournaments described in Level 3. Flyers for these tournaments can usually be found in a rack at your bowling center.
A handicap singles tournament may be best at the start. Examples of these in New England include the Northeast Amateur Tournament (open to all) and Rhode Island Ladies Classic (women-only), which conduct tournaments every three-to-four weeks in bowling centers around their areas. The next step would be competing with the best bowlers of your area in the intensity of a scratch tournament, such as those run by the New England Bowlers Association. Similar tournaments are likely offered in your area, such as SASBA in the South.
Once you are ready for the national stage, you'll want to compete in one or more of bowling's premier tournaments, such as the Masters/Senior Masters and US Open tournaments for men, and the Queens/Senior Queens and Women's US Open tournament for women. In each case the final matches of the tournament are shown on television or live-streamed on the internet. Information on these tournaments can be found on the USBC website.
2. How do I qualify to bowl in these tournaments?
For tournaments run by the USBC, as well as most handicap tournaments and those where competitors are grouped into divisions by average, you will need a league average that was established by bowling at least 21 games in one USBC sanctioned league in the past year or so. USBC tournaments will also require that you show a current USBC membership card.
Beyond that, qualification is established on-site at the tournament venue through the initial games of bowling. There generally is no minimum average requirement.
3. How do these tournaments work?
Although tournaments generally fall under USBC playing rules, many tournaments at this level have additional rules. Be sure to read them before the tournament and find out what the tournament oil pattern will be. Generally, these tournaments start with qualifying play of anywhere from three to eighteen games. For those who qualify (also referred to as "make the cut"), the winner is usually determined in one the following ways:
Match play - Head-to-head elimination competition in successive rounds. The first round has the top "seed" (highest score in qualifying play) play the lowest seed on one pair, the second-highest plays vs. the second-lowest on another, and so on. The losers of that round are eliminated and the winners advance to play each other in the next round, with as many succeeding rounds played as needed to have one winner at the end of the final match.
Elimination play - Like match play except that all of the qualifiers bowl together on the same pair of lanes, with the loser eliminated and additional elimination games played in succession until one competitor wins the final match.
Top-level tournaments will likely have additional competition:
Round-robin play - All of the qualifiers bowl each other in turn, with the winner of each game earning a bonus (commonly 30 pins); the competitors having the highest total pinfall at the end of round-robin advance to the final. In tournaments where round-robin is the final round, the competitor with the highest total pinfall wins.
Double-elimination match play - Second-chance match play(often called the "losers' bracket"), in which the losers of regular match play competition play each other in successive matches until one winner advances to the final.
Stepladder finals - Usually the final competition, and if the tournament has a "TV show" on a national sports channel, this will be the part that will be televised. It is head-to-head competition where only two of the top seeds bowl at a time. If there are five top seeds, the player seeded #5 plays #4, then the winner plays #3, that winner plays #2, and that winner plays #1.
4. Am I good enough to compete in one of these tournaments?
That's a personal question. You might be inclined to wait until your bowling is good enough to give you a shot at winning the tournament, but that could be months or even years away. Why not jump in now? It would give you a chance to get over the inevitable first-time jitters and get comfortable in such a serious environment while your personal stakes are low. Plus, the more tournaments you bowl in, the more the competitive environment will become familiar and maybe even welcome, thereby allowing your bowling ability to shine through.
A good approach to determining if you are good enough is to look at the results of a tournament's qualifying play from its more recent tournaments and decide if you can bowl at least as well as the lowest finisher, even after deducting 20 pins from your league average to allow for the more challenging tournament oil pattern and/or your own nervousness in a tournament atmosphere. Outside your comfort zone? As Dr. Dean Hinitz says in his book Focused for Bowling, "Only those with true intention who are willing to step beyond comfort zones get to scale to the top of their personal and professional mountains."
5. When will I be ready to compete in these tournaments?
First, you need to be quite confident that you can adjust to whatever oil pattern is will be used, as well as to the changes that will occur to the location and consistency of the oil as the competitors bowl more and more games on the lanes. This will be even more critical if you will bowl on the "burn" for one of the squad times, which means the lanes will not have been re-oiled since the squad before it. (Lanes that are re-oiled in advance are referred to as the "fresh.")
Perhaps more importantly, you will need to be really good at spare shooting, because it's going to be that much harder to strike on challenging oil conditions and those extra pins will be extra important.
You will also need to know your bowling balls so well - how they react and when to use them - that you consider them to be your friends, and yet, you also know when to take an Abralon pad to them to get the reaction you need. If you need to ask what an Abralon pad is, you are FAR from ready for these level tournaments.
You will need to be confident that you can deal with however slippery or tacky the approaches are at the tournament bowling center. It will be a challenge to have this confidence unless you already are using bowling shoes that have adjustable soles and heels. They are not cheap, but they are worth every penny.
And finally, you will need to make sure your stamina is up for the grind, as you may end up playing 10 or more games in one day and 30 or more over the course of the tournament. Hint: Try bowling eight games or more in practice, and if you are still throwing the ball well in the last one, you're probably up to the challenge. (Regardless, it may also be a good idea to stock up on Ibuprofen.)
6. Will the other competitors dislike having a newbie at "their" tournament?
It's highly unlikely as long as you follow the rules. Most participants are keenly aware that bowling tournament participation has been waning over the last few years, so having more competitors increases the chances the tournaments will live on to see future years. It also increases the prize fund!
And if you are worried that other bowlers might laugh if your bowling isn't at their level, relax. Almost all competitors are going to be too focused on their own bowling to notice yours.
7. Will the other competitors be friendly?
You probably won't feel that way during competition. Each bowler is focused on his/her bowling and if there is any idle chatter, it will be about that day's bowling and nothing else. But if you do get a chance to socialize with one or more of the competitors at the end of the day, you'll find they are the best possible bowlers - those who are serious about the game but who also know how to have a good time off the lanes.
8. How many bowlers will be on a pair of lanes?
There could be as few as two in singles play but as many as ten in team play. If it's two, the bowlers may choose to bowl "TV style" or "pro style," where one bowler bowls two frames in succession while the other sits. It keeps the pace from being breakneck speed, and it's easier on the knees since you only sit after every other frame. The only downside is that it gives you more time to let your nerves take control of you.
9. Will one-lane courtesy be used like we do in league?
Possibly. But many will follow two-lane courtesy, where you don't bowl unless there are no bowlers on the two lanes on either side of you.
The highest level competition will use the double jump rule. Here, nobody can throw a shot on your pair again until somebody has thrown a shot on the pair to your left AND the pair to your right. It's important to note that the word pair in this case refers to two lanes that have a ball return in the middle, unlike two-lane courtesy. Double jump will initially feel like a big leap from what you are used to, but once you get used to it, you may actually find you like the rhythm that it provides to the tournament. A World Bowling video provides several examples of double jump in action (hint: watch for the ball returns changing colors).
Be careful not to be over-courteous. If only one-lane courtesy is required and you use two-lane courtesy, the other competitors will think you are slowing down play and may even feel you are being a bit greedy. The same will be the case if use double jump when only two-lane courtesy is required.
As with so many other things in serious bowling, the lane courtesy being used in the tournament will likely not be announced or listed in the tournament rules because it is assumed the competitors have been competing forever and therefore already know the answer. This is silly because competitors take lane courtesy very seriously and will not be happy campers if anyone does not follow it. If it's not clear, avoid potential embarrassment and ask! And once on the lanes, if you become aware that you goofed (and you very likely will in your first-time nervousness), be sure to apologize to the bowler(s) you jumped as soon as you can. And then, don't do it again!
10. Do I have to bowl all of the games of qualifying play on the same pair of lanes?
No. You will generally switch pairs after each game to keep competitors from being cursed to bowl all games on a low-scoring pair or unfairly blessed to bowl all games on a high-scoring pair. While that is fairer, it also means that you've got to hustle your bowling balls, towel, water, score sheet, etc. quickly to the next pair after each game without holding up the others. And of course, if you were lined up well on the last pair, you may find yourself struggling to find a starting position and target that will work well on the next.
11. Is there any difference in the way these higher level tournaments are scored?
No, but competitors will often be ranked by the difference between their total score and 200 times the total number of games bowled. For example, if you bowl a 185, 210, and 225 in three games, your total score is 620, which is 20 pins more than 200 times 3 games (600). You will then be listed in the rankings as +20.
Even if the tournament does not rank this way, you will often hear competitors refer to how they bowled in terms of their difference vs. 200. You might hear things like "I'm +56" or "I'm -6" or even "I'm plus" for short.
12. On the tournaments I see on TV or via live-streaming, the competitors all wear colorful shirts with theirs names on the back. Is that a requirement?
Almost all higher-level tournaments require at minimum a collared or mock collar shirt. For tournaments where the finals are televised or streamed, the shirt will need to have your name on the back (last name at minimum), and many bowlers will satisfy this requirement with a polo shirt that has been embroidered. A few will instead wear more expensive and usually quite colorful dye-sublimated shirts (with their names on the back) from a company like High 5 Gear, especially in the finals.
13. Once I'm comfortable bowling the tournaments of Level 4 and and ready for more of a challenge, whats the next step?
The next step is to "go pro." The Professional Bowler's Association is the pinnacle of bowling competition internationally. As a PBA member your first step will be to compete in one of the over 100 PBA Regional Tournaments. There are seven PBA Regions. Once you are cashing in the tournaments held in your Region, you will want to compete in one or more of the national tournaments of the PBA Tour or the PBA50 Tour (for those 50+). The best bowlers of those on the national tour compete to be the PBA national champions.
The are more stringent restrictions for PBA tournaments. Competitors are limited to using bowling balls, footwear, shirts, and accessories that are registered with the PBA. Only nine bowling balls are allowed in the locker room. Coaching is not allowed except during the televised portions of competition. And so on.
Membership requires average of at least 200 in an USBC sanctioned league or 190 in a sanctioned Sport or PBA Experience league, or to have cashed in one of the PBA's Regional Tournaments, PBA Tour Qualifying Rounds, or open PBA tournaments. In all cases you must be a USBC member in good standing (or World Bowling for international bowlers). You can compete in tournaments at the higher, non-member fee but will be required to join the PBA after you have cashed in a tournament.
One drawback of PBA membership is that the USBC nationals tournaments limit teams to just one professional. Another is that certain private tournaments exclude those who have cashed in PBA tournaments, and others exclude PBA members altogether. One example of the latter is the popular True Amateur Tournaments, popular because the tournament prizes are generous. If you are aware of a top-level bowler who does not have his "PBA card", this may be why.
14. Can women bowl in PBA tournaments?
Yes, although generally only the very best women bowlers stand a chance of winning given the physical advantages of men, not to mention the sheer number of men competing. Missy Parkin was the first PBA member and now holds three PBA Regional Titles, Liz Johnson was the first to win a PBA Regional Tournament and is the first to advance to two different televised PBA Tour finals, and Kelly Kulick is the only woman to have won the PBA Tournament of Champions.
15. Is there a women-only professional tournament series?
Yes. The Professional Women's Bowling Association (PWBA) tour re-launched in 2015 as a joint effort of the USBC and Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America (BPAA). The 2017 schedule featured 12 tour stops around the country with the stepladder finals of all 12 shown on national television.
The PWBA has stringent restrictions governing competition and what equipment can be used that are similar to those of the PBA. Membership is open to USBC members in good standing with a 180 average or better.
As with PBA membership, there are drawbacks to consider. The USBC limits its national tournaments to just one professional (PBA or PWBA) member per team, and being a PWBA member or having cashed in a PWBA tournament may result in you being ineligible to compete in certain other private tournaments.
16. I am passionate about bowling. It is my life, and I would bowl all the time if I could. Can I make a living by competing on one of the professional tours?
Realistically, only the very top professionals can. Many others find they need to supplement their income, and the most common way they do is by running a pro shop. PWBA tour tournaments are intentionally compressed into the weekend so that players can maintain other responsibilities. A look at recent PBA player earnings and PWBA player earnings shows why it's not so easy to make a living on bowling alone.
17. What else should I know?
You should at least be aware of all of the sources listed on the Resources page, if not familiar with them. You will also find it helpful to be able to converse with other competitors off the lanes about the current state of bowling, as outlined on the Bowling Today page. And finally, you should read the Tom Shannon page and then be prepared to discuss with others whether or not you think what he is doing is good for bowling seriously.