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Tournament of Champions boosts purse to record $1 million

Pete Weber loves his father as much as any son could.

The late bowling legend Dick Weber introduced his son to the sport and served as his mentor as he developed into a second-generation PBA Hall of Famer.

Pete Weber would have done nearly anything to repay his dad.

Moments after winning his only PBA Tournament of Champions title in 1987, Pete Weber pledged that the championship sports coat would go to his father, who finished second in 1965 and 1966 but never won the event.

However, that exchange never happened.

"I didn't give him the jacket," the 48-year-old Weber said last week. "I decided you have to earn that one or it doesn't mean anything."

That's how important a Tournament of Champions title is.

The event has extra luster and incentive this week at Red Rock, where a record $1 million purse is at stake, including $250,000 to Saturday's champion, the PBA's largest payday ever.

The tournament also returns to a live, national broadcast with a Saturday midday time slot for the first time in 14 years. The PBA Tour had been on ABC for 36 years until moving exclusively to ESPN networks and Sunday telecasts.

At the peak of the PBA Tour's popularity in the mid-1970s, 9 million homes tuned in to watch on ABC.

"Back in the day, (the shows) outranked everything in our time slot," said Weber, who has won 35 PBA titles. "We'd be outside having a snowball fight or in the summer playing baseball, and we'd stop and go inside to watch Dad."

Telecasts the past decade have averaged audiences of about 1 million homes, according to the Professional Bowlers Association, but posted a five-year best of 1.7 million for last year's historic Tournament of Champions, when Kelly Kulick became the first woman to win a regular PBA Tour title.

"What most people remember about (professional) bowling was that it was on ABC on Saturday afternoons," said Tom Clark, the PBA's vice president and chief operating officer.

The first-place check Saturday will be 2½ times more than the previous best for a winner in the PBA's 52-year history.

It wasn't until 1989 that a pro bowler won that much for an entire season; Mike Aulby had to compete in 40 tournaments that year to make $298,237.

"I always imagined we'd bowl for that much money, but I didn't expect it now" during a recession, Weber said.

Clark hopes the sizable winner's check will help increase viewership.

"The pressure of the moment is going to make the bowlers' emotions come out, and that's what you need," he said.

The winner hasn't received a ceremonial sports coat for winning the Tournament of Champions since Firestone left as the sponsor 18 years ago, but the victor Saturday certainly will be able to buy a nice one.

■ NOTE -- Finland's Osku Palermaa maintained a 234.6 average and expanded his lead Tuesday after the third of four qualifying rounds.

Palermaa, Europe's premier two-handed bowler, led PBA Hall of Famer Norm Duke of Clermont, Fla., by 65 pins after 15 games, finishing with a total of 3,519.

Sean Rash of Montgomery, Ill., was third with 3,443 pins, followed by Mike Fagan of Patchogue, N.Y., with 3,436 and Mike Edwards of Tulsa, Okla., at 3,418.

Defending champion Kelly Kulick of Union, N.J., slipped to 42nd place with 3,226 pins.

Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247. Visit lvrj.com/bowling for more tournament news and commentary.

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