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BOWLING'S RIGHT UP OUR ALLEY
80 MILLION IN U.S. GET INTO THE SWING OF SPORT THAT HAS 7,000-YEAR HISTORY

This year, an estimated 80 million of us will head for the neighborhood bowling center, don our shoes, select a suitable ball or unpack our own, then swing into action.

When we do, here's just a bit of what's in store for us as we join in the No. 1 participation sport today, plus a look back at bowling history and a few tips on how we might improve our own game.THE HISTORY OF BOWLING, PART I

Historians say the sport began about 7,000 years ago with the Egyptians, who rolled roundish stones at targets. Eventually, these targets became early recognizable forms of "pins," including a variety later used by German parishioners who bowled balls at a "kegle," or club, in hopes of cleansing themselves of sin. Knocking over the kegle (hence, "keglers") signified the bowler was leading a properly religious life; a miss meant some penance was in order.

By medieval times, "ninepin" bowling had so caught the fancy of the populace that Martin Luther, the religious reformer, publicly declared himself a booster of the game.

BOWLING HISTORY, PART II, or, how the 10th pin came to be added and the fair sex came out of the closet

Transplanted to North America centuries later, ninepin bowling attracted so many gamblers that early in the 19th century, Connecticut and other states passed laws against playing the game.

But this barely slowed the burgeoning breed of bowling aficionados: They simply added a 10th pin _ shifting the array from a diamond configuration to the contemporary triangular one in order to circumvent the legal prohibitions _ a sort of bootleg bowling.

In 1895, the American Bowling Congress was established to create uniform rules and standardize bowling equipment.

In those early years, it was considered unseemly for women to bowl, so proprietors hung curtains to shield them from view of the men. The situation changed in 1916 with the creation of the Women's International Bowling Congress, and soon bowling became a family sport.

BOWLING'S NUTS AND BOLTS

The 10 hard maple pins are set at the end of a 62-foot lane of lacquered wood, roughly the distance separating batter and pitcher in baseball, each pin weighing about 3 1/2 pounds and placed a foot apart from the others, says Thomas P. Kicher, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The bowling balls are smoothly lathed spheres of ebonite (a hard rubber material) weighing from 10 to 16 pounds.

Because the drilling of the finger holes throws the ball slightly out of balance, a compensatory weight (or weights) must be inserted between the thumb and finger holes at a point chosen with computer precision to restore balance, Kicher explains.

Kicher, who started a bowling dynamics laboratory, is one of only a handful of university researchers who have investigated bowling scientifically. He is currently conducting studies on the strength and durability of balls, the frictional characteristics of certain cover stocks and the precise trajectory of different rolls (the ball paths are tracked using a laser system).

A ball that seems balanced to the hand may not, in fact, be balanced when it starts rolling, Kicher emphasizes. Sophisticated "dynamic balancing" attempts to take into account the effects of the ball's rotational momentum on its trajectory _ much as modern car tires are balanced under rotational conditions.

BETTER BOWLING THROUGH CHEMISTRY

Though bowling is thousands of years old, it has only been about 75 years since the old wooden balls, which lacked finger holes, wobbled down lanes, Kicher notes. Around the turn of the century, ebonite was introduced, creating a more uniform ball and making the all-important implantation of balancing weights much easier.

The next breakthrough came in the early 1960s, when a polyester plastic coating was put on balls. This added friction between ball and lane and made for better ball control. Then along came the new "plastic-dressed" lanes of the 1970s (replacing those with traditional lacquer and varnish finishes), and soon using plastic-covered balls on plastic-dressed lanes became the rule of thumb among the pros, Kicher says.

Next, in the early 1980s, polyurethene (a softer, rubber-like material) supplanted polyester as the ball cover of choice because it lent special hook and curve characteristics to the ball. Now even amateur bowlers can achieve that better rolling angle into the pins that ups the odds of getting a strike.

Technologically speaking, that's right where we stand today, Kicher says.

BET YOU DIDN`T KNOW . . .

Roughly 45 percent of bowlers bowl year-round, 65 percent or so own their own bowling balls, and these ball owners score an average of about 165-170, says Donald Ferguson, an art editor with the Kegler News. It's tougher to bowl a good game with a house ball because it likely won't fit your hand as well and is often nicked and scuffed and doesn't roll as true.

House shoes won't do as well either, Ferguson adds, because they're usually made generically for both right- and left-handers.

Ideally, a right-hander's right shoe sole should be made of rubber for traction and control, the left of leather for easier sliding at the point of delivery (with a little strip of rubber that acts as a brake). But house shoes are usually both leather-soled for convenience, which can sacrifice footing.

Lane conditions must also be considered if one is aiming for a high average, says Ferguson. Lanes vary in how dry or oily they are and in the extent of surface flaws (such as well-worn "tracks" that can throw off a roll). On a very oily lane, an otherwise well-thrown ball can slide too far and hook late, missing the headpin. (Oiling usually begins at the foul line and extends about 30-40 feet but can vary with age or use of the lanes.)

AND AWAY YOU GO!

The best way to improve your game is to get some lessons and bowl several times a week, though not two days in a row if you can avoid it, advises pro bowler Patty Costello, winner of 25 titles and a recent inductee into the Women's International Bowling Congress Hall of Fame. If your league bowls on a Wednesday, then practice on, say, Friday and Monday.

When you're bowling, step up to the line confidently and find your target. Use the arrows on the lane _ the second one from the right for a right-hander is a common one. Keep your feet near the middle of the lane, your body straight and shoulders square. If you're right-handed, your left foot should be a little forward. Concentrate on the spot but don't think too much.

Most bowlers use four or five steps in their approach. Don't delay before the approach very long or you'll get tight. Just get set, look at the spot, then go.

Remember that staying down is important because if you look up too early, your head will pull your body up prematurely. Looking at the spots can help you keep your head down.

As you begin to move, hold the ball waist high, shift the weight to your bowling hand (don't do this beforehand or your bowling hand can get tired) and then start your foot and the ball moving at the same time. Get a good, free arm swing that goes straight back and lifts high, then continue forward smoothly with a consistent, natural movement of the feet. Your legs are very important in driving the ball.

Be sure to bring your hand low to the ground. Don't drop the ball. A slightly bent left knee (for right-handers) as you begin your slide helps you lower your bowling hand in a balanced way for a smooth launch.

THE SWING'S THE THING

Because a smooth, pendular body action is necessary to accelerate and deliver the ball properly, try to maintain a good sense of where your body is and what it's doing at all times, Kicher advises. One way to gain added body awareness is to go through some "dry run" bowls while watching yourself in the mirror. Look for any hitches in your movements, and try to eliminate them. Some people have found that karate, which makes a good companion sport to bowling, helps them smooth out their movements.

For good bowling, some part of your body _ whether it's your head, shoulders or the center of your torso, etc. _ should describe a smooth trajectory from start to finish. This helps anchor your delivery and give it stability. So look for this type of smoothness in your own bowling, Kicher recommends.

YOU HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR BUT FEAR ITSELF

Kicher says it's a curious fact that bowlers often "choke" when throwing their second ball at a single remaining pin, yet feel no such pressure when faced with a full array.

The irony is that a good throw of the first ball into the pocket requires hitting a target only a couple of inches wide. A single pin, on the other hand, constitutes a target of 4 inches for the pin itself, plus 8 1/2 inches for the ball _ a total of 12 1/2 inches across! "A single pin is actually the largest target up there," Kicher reassures.

KING KONG KEGLERS

A lot of men like to really fire the ball down the lane, killing the pins. But speed and strength aren't the name of the game, insists Kicher. Instead, accuracy and consistency of placement are.

"A lot of those guys who really unload the ball lose precision and end up leaving strange configurations of pins that are hard to spare. It doesn't take much energy to knock over the pins. A well-placed ball will do it."

If you're tempted to use a lighter ball so you can fire it faster, bear in mind that a lighter ball shrinks the effective strike pocket quite dramatically: Going from a 16-pound ball to a 12-pounder might reduce the pocket by as much as half, Kicher estimates.

This is because a lighter ball will deflect more off the lead pins and is more likely to leave pins deeper inside the array.

"Use the heaviest ball you can comfortably and accurately throw. A lighter ball may also lead you to try to overpower the pins and exaggerate your throw. A heavier ball could help you stabilize your delivery."

Many pros are what are called "strokers": They throw the ball at a mid-range speed (about 25 feet per second and 150 rpm) with high consistency. "They're pretty to watch _ exacting and precise. Often they don't even look at the pins: They could bowl without pins and tell you how well they did."

Instead of aiming at the pins, they "sight" using the rangefinders 15 feet down the alley because these are easier to keep an eye on. At that distance, the tolerance for error is plus or minus 1/2 inch for the ball to stay on course for a strike. The pocket itself for a straight ball is about 2 inches wide, a bit larger for a ball that's hooking. For this reason, good bowlers try to develop a consistent curve or hook ball for that first roll. But a backup ball (one that hooks in the reverse direction) shrinks the strike zone drastically. It's really tough to strike with one of these.

"It's all a consideration of angles, energy and point of entry into the pins. There are a lot of touchy and precise tradeoffs. Bowling is an exacting sport," Kicher says.

BUT DON'T TRY DRIVING YOUR CAR DOWN THE ALLEY

In a sense, bowling is like steering a car _ you're constantly making adjustments to changing conditions, then adjusting the adjustments.

If you're hitting the headpin too far to the right or left, you can simply shift your starting position to the right or left a few boards, advises Patty Costello. Or you can rotate your body slightly to shift your angle to the target. You can also increase or decrease your hook or curve, but this is tough to do with precision.

If the ball is hooking too much, a faster ball speed will straighten it out a bit; a slower roll can add to a hook. But be careful: Changing speeds can affect other variables that open the way to different problems, Costello says.

A common adjustment made by pros is to switch balls: a softer cover ball will grab more and add to a hook; harder balls curve less.

If you're hitting the pocket well but leaving the 5 pin (the center pin), you need more angle to your ball's approach: Move your body so your ball comes in more from the side. A heavier ball could also help.

Bear in mind that fatigue, ball weight and smoothness, arm strength and lane conditions will all affect how your ball travels, Costello says.

Okay now, bowlers, take the wheel. But steer clear of those nasty gutters.