On the eve of the PBA Tour's second appearance in Wilmington, what goes into winning at the lanes

On the eve of the inaugural PBA Xtra Frame Wilmington Open last May, Anthony Simonsen found himself without his most important tool.

Simonsen’s preferred bowling balls had not made it to Ten Pin Alley due to transportation issues.

The youngest player to ever win a PBA major championship then did what any professional would do: He drilled a new ball in Ten Pin’s pro shop and won the tournament.

“After what we saw during practice, I decided to drill a ball,” said Simonsen, who typically has 5-6 on hand. “It actually ended up being the ball that I used for the entire weekend.”

The pro shop’s proprietors, brothers James and Joe Grago, were amazed.

“Anything that can associate my shop with a well-known name pro is amazing — whatever way it takes,” said James, who with his family is preparing the center for the second-annual tournament this weekend.

Talking shop

The Gragos have run Pin Down since before their parents, Jim and Margaret, purchased Ten Pin Alley in late 2015.

Among their most important duties at the pro shop is the science of measuring and drilling bowling balls, which results in one unique to the person for whom it is made.

Preparing a new ball for play starts with tracing a layout at an angle that will determine how soon or late the ball will begin to roll once it’s thrown. Once that’s done, measurements taken of the bowler’s hand are applied to the surface of the ball so that holes can be drilled one at a time.

“I’m lining up the drill bit, so that way I can apply the first hole for my finger,” James said. “And that way it can help me line up for my second hole, so that way I can make sure my measurements are correct for my span (the distance between the holes used to hold the ball) to drill my thumb.”

Different types of grips exist for bowlers, and there are a few options when drilling a ball — one includes forming the holes to fit the bowler’s fingers comfortably; the other option makes use of urethane inserts which, again, are fitted to match the finger shape of the bowler.

There's even some with vent holes, used for the thumb and smaller than an ant.

Another variation in a bowling ball deals with the depth of which the bowler’s fingers grip the ball. There’s a conventional grip, which most novice bowlers use when they play recreationally at a bowling alley, designed for the hole to come up to the middle finger joint.

Then there’s the “fingertip” grip, in which the fingers are inserted up to the first knuckle, resulting in a more relaxed feel that will allow the bowler to properly use hook shots and put more spin on the ball. This can be done with or without inserts.

“The grips allow you to get more lift (releasing the thumb before the other fingers, giving the ball more power) naturally without having to actually do any of the work,” Joe said.

Another important choice a bowler makes when preparing a ball is the type of coverstock on the ball’s surface. The coverstock, outside of simply giving a ball a specific look, changes the reaction time down the lane.

The main coverstocks available are plastic, urethane, pearl, solid, and hybrid. These range from least reactive (plastic), meaning they move less as they roll, to most reactive (solid), translating to more movement, with one downside being the ball soaks up oil faster, requiring more maintenance.

Reading the lanes

Much like a golfer reads a green, a bowler must be able to read the lane.

On the PBA circuit, oil patterns vary greatly.

“Each tournament that you go to is going to have a different oil pattern,” James said. “Our tournament (pattern) is what they call ‘viper.’ It’s 36 feet in length and the oil that they spread out for you not to be able to play the lane in certain areas.

“If you do play the lane in certain areas with certain bowling balls, you can think that you have a good look, but you’re really not,” he said. “It’ll be there for a couple of frames or a game and it’ll just disappear.”

A bowler’s ability to read the lanes greatly affect performance game-to-game. Just a few bad reads can jeopardize a player’s chances at winning a tournament or advancing altogether.

The key to success? Being able to read a graph of the lane posted by the PBA at each tournament, as well as knowing the paths other bowlers are using to score.

“The difficult thing about our sport is the oil,” James said. “We can take our graph of the viper pattern and put it down our lanes and they’re going to play one way. But then I can go to (Cardinal Lanes) Beach Bowl and use our same machine on their lanes and it’s going to play 100 percent different.”

Tourney time

The second PBA Xtra Frame Wilmington Open will begin Saturday at 9 a.m. with 96 professional bowlers competing for Sunday’s four-game “cashers” round.

The top 16 competitors after Sunday morning then look to qualify for the four-man, stepladder finals set for 3 p.m to win a $10,000 first-place prize. Admission is free.

Will Simonsen bring last year's winning ball? No — he's not concerned about superstition — although the 21-year-old will use ones similar to the one drilled in Pin Down Pro Shop.