A sign at the top of the escalator said the bowling lanes at Texas Station were closed because there was a tournament in progress. There would be no open bowling for $4 per lane. No Cosmic Bowling for $5. No funky rented bowling shoes smelling of foot powder disinfectant.
According to industry research, more than 70 million people go bowling in the U.S. every year — not all in Milwaukee — and another 30 million worldwide.
But on this Sunday afternoon, only five bowlers were allowed onto the lanes.
The U.S. Women’s Open went down to the last ball, with Danielle McEwan of Stony Point, New York, edging top qualifier Tannya Roumimper of Indonesia 201-199. Spectators packed onto the risers wearing Hammer and Brunswick gear cheered.
The first-place check of $20,000 paled in comparison to what major winners are paid in other women’s sports.
Ashleigh Barty made $2.6 million for winning the recent French Open. Lee Jeong-eyn took home $1 million at the U.S. Open for women who golf. Danielle McEwan received a big sack of peanuts at the U.S. Open for women who bowl.
But at least there is a women’s tour again. For 12 seasons, from 2003 to 2015, women’s pro bowling went the way of the Raccoon Lodge Championship.
The honeymoon was over.
In the gutter
“I went out on the old tour for about a year and a half and realized I needed to go home and get better,” said 40-year-old veteran Shannon O’Keefe, who finished third in the Open after losing to McEwan in another taut game decided on the last shot. “In that six to eight months, the tour folded.
“It was gone. The only way for me to continuing competing on a very high level was to try out for Team USA.”
O’Keefe was forced to fall back on her full-time job — bowling coach at McKendree University on the Illinois side of St. Louis. Most players on the rebranded Professional Women’s Bowling Association tour still have to work second jobs, because the tour lasts only 13 weeks and the purses aren’t that great.
“When the tour started (again) it was like a dream come true,” O’Keefe said. “To have the tour out there for all the little girls to look forward to is such a blessing.”
When the Ladies Pro Bowlers Tour wound up in the gutter due to lack of sponsorship, the best women’s bowlers were forced to retire, play in limited specialty tournaments or go overseas. Henderson’s Wendy MacPherson was among the most successful, winning 10 titles in Japan.
A few women tried to compete on the men’s tour.
Kelly Kulick was the first.
Kulick made history by winning the 2010 Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas. The person to whom she handed the trophy, assumed to be her mother, joked it would make a great ashtray. Kulick and the big ashtray wound up being invited to the White House.
After McEwan knocked down nine pins on the last ball to win, Kulick was the one who interviewed her for the CBS Sports Network.
The microphone kept cutting out.
Back in the pocket
But technical difficulties aside, the women’s pro bowling tour has been reborn.
After returning with 10 events in 2015, it has grown modestly to 14. O’Keefe said it would be nice if the tour added sponsors outside of the industry. Then maybe the girls coming up now wouldn’t have to hold down second jobs.
McEwan, 27, is one of the few on tour focusing solely on bowling for sustenance.
“I’m very lucky with the timing,” said the five-time tour titlist. “When I first came out of college (Fairleigh Dickinson), I was lucky to be able to compete against the guys and on Team USA and on the world bowling tour. I think it was a year or two later when it popped up on Facebook, of all places, that the tour was coming back.”
Her eyes were dancing in the manner her bowling ball had across the lanes in the Texas Station basement.
The green blazer that goes to the U.S. Open champion hung from her shoulders, and the man from the tour who had been waiting to interview her finally returned with his camera battery charged. The spectators had descended from the risers and were patiently waiting to ask for her signature on souvenir bowling pins.
Danielle McEwan had yet to receive the $20,000 check, so she flashed a million-dollar smile instead. Now that she had reached the pinnacle of her profession, it didn’t seem about the money anymore.
U.S. Women’s Open
Stepladder finals at Texas Station
Liz Kuhlkin, Schenectady, N.Y., def. Shannon Sellens, Long Beach, N.Y., 213-183.
Shannon O’Keefe, Shiloh, Illinois, def. Kuhlkin, 233-192.
Danielle McEwan, Stony Point, N.Y., def. O’Keefe, 229-225.
McEwan def. Tannya Roumimper, Indonesia, 201-199.