OK, what do you think of when I say "lawn bowling"? Bagpipes and daiquiris? The Duke of Beaufort? I can barely conjure up a visual myself. To me, lawn bowling is like a forced marriage between badminton and a clambake.
Actually, it is so much more — more or less. Even as we speak, the U.S. Open, the largest international competition in the nation, is taking place right in our own backyards — Long Beach, Newport, Laguna. Of course, if you bowled in my real backyard, you'd kill three gophers and a Pekingese. (Seriously, be my guest. In case I'm out, I'll leave the equipment by the fire pit).
But down on these verdant U.S. Open venues — flat as a pool table and grass short as a cadet's haircut — there are no excuses. Sure, the balls are purposely a little lopsided. In lawn bowling, as in politics, nothing goes from here to there in a straight line. Rather, the ball is delivered like a wicked golf slice. Figure about six feet of banana curl for every 75 to 100 feet of distance.
Here are some other things you should know before you make lawn bowling your life:
• It is played pretty well anywhere the British ever plopped a flag, except the U.S., where it is still trying to find a serious following.
• Lawn bowling is older than curling, older than baseball, and almost older than the Magna Carta.
There are no refs.
There are no steroids — yet.
Bench-clearing brawls are fairly nonexistent.
It is, despite it Gatsby-esque image, surprisingly affordable.
Wagering is prohibited, though not unheard of.
Honestly, I just made up that last one, but the rest is true. I've been studying this sport seriously for three or four hours now, in the lava sun of Laguna Woods, amid a bevy of Australians dressed like Packers cheeseheads, New Zealanders who think they rule the sport and some hotshot Americans who think they one day might.
"We need to incorporate the younger generation, what I call the XBox generation," says Charlie Herbert of Newport Beach, who has played for four years.
Herbert, a stockbroker and avid kite boarder, is one of those Master of the Universe types. He has a reputation out here as a very aggressive player — sort of the Jared Allen of lawn bowling. I'm pretty sure he could kick my butt blindfolded.
"It's really a game of finesse, not a game of power," assures Howard Harris, the tournament director, a more relaxed type (but only on the surface).
"It's the sort of game where someone comes out and says, 'This is easy,' and then gets beat by an 85-year-old woman," Harris explains.
Not wanting to get beat by an 85-year-old woman, I take a lesson from Mert Isaacman, who is chairman of the U.S. Open, but still manages to take a few minutes to tutor a newcomer during a lunch break.
With his help, I lay up a couple of shots close to the bull's-eye, which is actually a little golf-ball-sized thing called a "jack." If, like me, you're good at activities requiring nerves of steel and a soft touch — billiards, wedding toasts, bank break-ins — you'll probably be quite good at lawn bowling.
Though the sport is virtually invisible here, SoCal is actually a hotbed of the game. Stretching from San Diego to Cambria, the Southwest Division is one of seven divisions in the U.S. and by far the largest. About half of all U.S. lawn bowlers reside in the Southwest, which is hosting this week's open (it ends Friday).
How cheap is this elitist-looking sport? For annual dues of $125 or so and a few bucks per outing, you can join one of the many bowling clubs in Southern California (http://www.swlawnbowls.com
has a list of clubs).
The game is hugely social, biggest in Australia, probably, but also popular in Britain, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand. Aficionados say you can show up at any lawn bowling facility around the world and be welcomed warmly and invited to play. Try that at Augusta National. They'd carry you out of there in a pie box.
Tourney director Harris loves lawn bowling, it's almost a blood relationship. He will talk your ear off about weights, curves, biases and other strategies of the sport. Talking to Harris about lawn bowling is like talking to Bill Belichick about cover 2 defenses. As with the sport of curling, an offshoot it inspired, lawn bowling can take a day to learn and a lifetime to master.
Yet, one player here at Laguna Woods, Brett Nista, has been playing all of three months. He wound up on Isaacman's four-man squad when someone had to drop out at the last minute.
"I was a sub and got lucky," Nista says with a shrug.
If you can participate in the U.S. Open of a sport after only three months, is it really a sport? Heck, is golf a sport? Is darts a sport? What about competitive eating?
Who cares? As Gordon Gekko, the original master of the universe, would tell you, anything that requires nerves of steel can be a hell of a sport.
Meanwhile, I got next. Escapism is so underrated.