Long on fresh air and short on sweat: Lawn bowling players say, 'just don't call it bocce ball'

NEWTOWN, Ohio - The members of the Cincinnati Lawn Bowling Club are, by all accounts, very nice people. Just don’t mistake their favorite sports for bocce.

“Every once in awhile we have somebody say, ‘Boy, we should play some bocce here,’” said Joe White, a past president of the club. “And we immediately have to tell people there’s a little similarity but not that much. This is very much a rolling game. Bocce is very much a tossing game.”

The tell-tale sign of bocce? Dimples on the green. The CLBC knows its lawn bowling green at Little Miami Golf Center has been used for bocce when dimples show up on the green.

“This is a very smooth putting green surface,” White said. “Billiard-table smooth.”

The bocce comparison is reasonable, though. Both sports involve competitors pitching metal balls at targets.

In lawn bowling, competitors--usually one-on-one or in teams of two--roll metal balls called bowls across the lawn: the bowling green. The aim it to hit a white target called a jack.

Degree of difficulty

In a two-on-two game, for example, each bowler rolls four bowls and receives points (called shots) for every bowl that is closer than those of the opponent.

A set of throws at a target constitutes "an end." Many lawn bowling games will last for a fixed number of ends, often 21. Sounds simple, right?

Well, there’s one more thing.

The lawn bowling bowl is not perfectly round like its bocce ball counterpart. Instead it is slightly elliptical in shape and weighted on one side. As a result, it doesn’t roll in a straight path but rather moves along an arc.

“Probably the most frustrating part is (the bowl) doesn’t go where you want it to,” said Bill Connor, president of the CLBC. “That relates entirely to your personal ability to aim. There are times when, immediately, because I didn’t handle it right it’s going off in the wrong direction. And even if it takes off where you want it to, you’ve got several dimensions you have to manage. The bowl doesn’t go straight. It’s designed to make a nice, smooth arc. You have to design the distance and also the direction.”

For some, the number of necessary considerations when lining up a roll is part of the appeal.

“The degree of difficulty is really increased,” said Tim Gibson, another club regular. “It gives you the opportunity to steer it, how you release it. Most of us had played bocce. We discovered that this game had a lot more opportunity for skill and a lot more opportunity to control your shot. It opened up something to us that was really interesting.”

Gibson started a recreational lawn bowling league with some friends from his Anderson Township neighborhood a few years ago.

“All of them professionals, a lot of them golfers looking for something else to do in the evening,” Gibson said.

They headed over to the bowling green at the Little Miami Golf Center with little experience in the sport and even lower expectations.

“We were almost chuckling as we went there,” Gibson said. “Then we discovered the level of expertise of the people who played. It was a lot more fun and a lot more interesting than we thought it would be.”

Gibson is now a regular with the CBLC, playing twice a week.

"A fairly gentle sport"

Lawn bowling has a reputation as a sport for the more senior of citizens, and it’s true that many members of the Cincinnati club are older.

“It's not an aerobic sport,” Joe White said. “I’m nowhere close to being a jock but I used to be a casual jogger. But the knees have finally given out. This is a fairly gentle sport. Bend your knees and swing your arm, and you are physically qualified to play this sport.”

Helen Vogt, a Mount Washington resident, discovered lawn bowling upon recommendation from a friend at her church. It wasn’t long after that she joined the club.

“It’s a great way to get out in the fresh air, which, unless you golf and play tennis, most adults don’t really have something that will take them outdoors,” Vogt said. “I think that’s one of the great benefits.

“I was never athletic. I never played golf. This was something very different for me. It’s not only a good way to get some exercise, it’s a lot of fun socializing with the people. People who want to lawn bowl are always nice people.”

Rebranding for a younger crowd

The bowling green at Little Miami features some younger players too.

“We're trying to push it as a younger person's sport in which older people can excel,” said Marty White, club secretary and wife of Joe White.

Joe remembers a recent night at the green when a young couple showed up. They had experience playing darts but didn’t know much about lawn bowling. The Whites, always looking to help those new to the sport, were hesitant to play the pair head-to-head.

“We were trying to figure out how to do teams so the two newbies wouldn’t be teamed up against us,” Joe said. “Me and my wife said, ‘Nah,’ and they proceeded to beat us.

“Younger people can pick it up quicker than others.”

Vogt recounts a similar story.

“Last Saturday, I was teamed with a man who was playing for the second time, and he was just great,” Vogt said. “It’s like he was just a natural.”

Even when less naturally talented players aren’t so quick to catch on to the sport, club members treat them with respect and patience.

“We’re going to be nice to you because we really do want you to come back,” Connor said.

Club members draw for teams in each game with a lottery system so that experts don’t gang up on the less experienced. And the first two sessions for any newcomer are free.

“It’s really great,” Gibson said. “I love the people there. I love talking to them. They’re all interesting.”

Joe White noted the players come from all walks of life: 

“Kindergarten teachers to Cincinnati Bell management people to P&Gers to retired dentists to roofing contractors to accountants of Fortune 1,000 companies.

“Just good folks.”

Want to join in?

  • The Cincinnati Lawn Bowling Club has open hours 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as 10 a.m. Saturday, March through October.
  • The group is hosting Sundays on the Green, 2 p.m., June 22, July 13, Aug. 17, Sept. 21 and Oct. 12.
  • Members can play all season for $50
  • Website & Facebook

(Photos courtesy of CLBC)

Got an offbeat sports story to share? Connect with contributor Ben Walpole: ben.caps.walpole@gmail.com

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