The focus at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Lawn Bowling Club is on the social aspect more than the competitive elements of a game that has been played in England since the 13th century.
That was particularly evident at last weekend’s afternoon open house, the first of two, when members were on hand to introduce newcomers to the sport before retiring to the NOTL Community Centre for refreshments.
The 64-member club is the oldest in Canada, having been established in 1877. For 133 years the club played on grass, first on the grounds of the Queen’s Royal Niagara Hotel, where Queen’s Royal Park is now situated. In 1922, the club moved to a green at the corner of Regent and Johnson Streets, now the site of the Voices of Freedom Park.
The club’s current home behind the Community Centre was opened in 2011. There, a regulation-sized green with an artificial surface was installed.
Judi Allen explains the purpose of the open houses is to attract some new members.
“We haven’t had a meet-and-greet or an open house for several years, of course, due to COVID,” Allen says. “It’s a fun afternoon. We hope that people will try the game and like it. If they do, we’ll set them up with coaching sessions further down the road.”
Local residents Linda and Joe De Fillipis decided to give the game a try Saturday. They were receiving some instruction from club members Carol and Doug Williams.
“I met Carol while I was dog-walking and she invited me,” Linda explained. “We used to play bocce ball, so it’s the same sort of thing, though the equipment is quite different. And you’re not in a park with hills.”
The couple was clearly getting the hang of how to bowl. And they were clearly enjoying themselves at the same time.
“I think we’re going to join,” Linda said. “We moved here about four years ago, and Joe is going to retire soon. We’d like to get involved in some social activities.”
“And the backdrop is lovely,” added Joe.
This reporter decided to take a lesson himself. Club president Paul McHoul assigned newer member Wig Baldauf, like this reporter a retired DSBN teacher, as coach for the informal session.
Baldauf was congenial to a T. He began by explaining how the ball, or bowl, is biased to one side. When it is bowled it rolls straight, if it is released correctly, of course. When it begins to lose velocity, it starts listing to either the right or left, depending on where the heavier side was upon release.
Like bocce, the goal is to have your bowl stop as close to the ‘jack’ as possible. That’s how points are earned in the game. Typically, bowls last eight ends, similar to curling.
Though the game seems simple, it all begins with holding and releasing the bowl the right way.
“It’s recommended that you put all your fingers underneath,” explained Baldauf. “You need to leave a gap and not let it sit on your palm. The trick is to use a smooth motion, as with any sport. You want to get down low for your release.”
The former physical education teacher guided his green student to the mat, which he explained can be set anywhere short of the hog line, marked by, you guessed it, a cartoonish hog at the side of the green. One foot must be on the mat during release.
The first few bowls went okay, and it was amazing to see how the bias of the club set of bowls worked in action. As this rookie got used to the weight of the bowls, attempts were made to approach the jack from either side of the green.
“That was impressive,” said an encouraging Baldauf following a particularly accurate bowl. “You’re a natural, because you can get down low and there is no bounce.”
Baldauf also worked with Tady Saczkowski, who was relieved to finally get out to try the game when the club was able to reopen following the pandemic. Saczkowski was a long-time president of the Welland Tennis Club and is known for his many years of promoting that sport in St. Catharines.
In addition, he has become a Niagara tennis historian of sorts. His research into the history of that game overlapped with him discovering the rich history of lawn bowling in NOTL.
“Finding the original pictures of the club, I started to get interested,” Saczkowski told The Local. “My wife Nancy and I are going to sign up today. This way you keep going. Otherwise you’re going to sit at home and watch Netflix all day.”
Saczkowski was handed a membership application, as McHoul explained the intake process for new members.
“We offer people usually three lessons, and we don’t ask for any money until you’ve gone through those lessons,” said McHoul. “We want people to join after they’ve had the lessons and feel comfortable with the sport.”
McHoul and Baldauf explained how the Saturday jitney games work, as well. Members show up those days and place their tags on the table. Teams are set up based on a random sorting of the tags. Baldauf claimed that he could go weeks without playing either with or against his wife Jean on the weekend.
It’s a unique way of making social connections amongst the club members.
The club meets on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday afternoons until June 26. On July 4, the Monday sessions move to the evening and the Wednesday gatherings shift to the mornings in an attempt to assuage the summer heat. There are also the 4-3-2-1 events on Tuesday evenings, and the Pairs League Friday nights.
The NOTL Lawn Bowling Club will hold another open house this Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. All are welcome to come out and try the game. It’s a lot of fun and membership prices are reasonable. For information visit notlbowls.ca.