THE OTHER “SPORT OF KINGS”
If you’re bored with golf, or tennis elbow has you sidelined from the courts, shove those clubs and rackets into the back of the closet and try Lawn Bowling. It’s different, fun, sociable, and good outdoor exercise.
Plus, it’s good for you! Lawn Bowling is a low-impact form of exercise that improves coordination and balance, as well as self-esteem and confidence. The Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club (see Resources) offers free lessons for beginners, too!
How to Play
Lawn Bowling is played on either a flat or slightly convex green, divided into eight lanes called rinks. Play can be in singles or teams, with 2, 3, or 4 people on a team. The first person to play rolls a small white ball, about the size of a billiard ball (called the “jack”) onto the green at least 21 meters toward the end. The jack is centered on the rink, then successive players roll “bowls” – balls about 11-13 cm in diameter – trying to come as close as possible to the jack. Tape measures are essential for scoring!
History of Lawn Bowling
Lawn Bowling is not exactly the “sport of kings,” but it comes close! It was banned by a few successive kings of England in the 14th and 15th centuries because it competed with archery, which was essential to the national defense, but it eventually became a favored pastime of noblemen, who graciously allowed commoners to bowl on Christmas Day. Royal estates were all fitted out with bowling greens. Anne Boleyn enjoyed bowling, as did the first Elizabeth and, reportedly, even Queen Victoria!
Bowling may have been banned at times in England, but it was never outlawed in Scotland – which, of course, never considered itself part of Britain in the first place! In fact, Scotland is still considered to be the home of the modern game of Lawn Bowling. There may be more bowling greens in Scotland today than there are golf courses – and there are even indoor greens, so that enthusiasts can play during the cold winter months. Lawn Bowling is an international pastime as well; it is played in more than 40 countries.
Forms of Lawn Bowling date to ancient times. Archeologists of ancient Greece and Rome have recorded paintings on earthenware depicting people tossing stone balls and measuring the distance. The sport probably spread to Europe with the help of Roman soldiers or sailors. A biography of Thomas Becket refers to young men playing at bowls with stone balls. The oldest and longest surviving bowling green is at Southampton, which was established in 1299.
Bowling in America
There is evidence that Lawn Bowling was played by early colonists in America in the 1600s. George Washington was apparently an avid bowler and kept a green in good shape at Mount Vernon before the Revolutionary War. However, they were not the first: Archeologists have found stone balls (now resting in a Vancouver, BC museum) indicating that Native Americans played a game similar to Lawn Bowling centuries before.
According to sedlawnbowls.org, the game was revived in the U.S. in 1879 with the opening of a Lawn Bowling club in New Jersey. Soon others followed. In Florida, the St. Petersburg Lawn Bowling Club is the oldest formally organized club in Florida and tenth in the nation. Its clubhouse is on the U.S. Register of Historic Places.
The invention of the lawnmower in 1830 had paved the way for the smooth greens, established rules of play, and modern customs that helped define the way the game is played today. Some customs have relaxed a bit: For instance, traditional attire is all white, and some tournament players still adhere to that standard, but for regular play, you just wear what’s comfortable, though remember to use sun protection! Also, the balls (called “bowls”) used to be made from lignum vitae, a dense wood, which led to the term “woods” for bowls, but now they are routinely made from a hard composite type of plastic.
Interesting Side Note!
“Bias” is a technical term that was applied to balls made with a greater weight on one side than the other. It was first used in 1560, and bias would make the ball curve toward one side when thrown. This practice is now illegal, but according to etymonline.com, this was the first use of the term “bias” to mean “one-sided” in the figurative or legal sense that we use it today, as leaning to one side mentally.
Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club: How to Lawn Bowl
Bowls USA, Southeast Division: History of Lawn Bowls
Written by Patricia Rockwood, Instructor and Staff Writer, Adult & Community Enrichment