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Original Issue

Splits, spares and spuds on a $2 million tour

Boyish Don Johnson picks up where he left off in 1971 by sheathing his swollen thumb in a raw potato, then outrolling the field to draw first blood on the 1972 circuit at the BPAA Open in New York City

Nelson Burton Jr. was back with his famous spatulated thumb. Ernie Schlegel, handicapped to start with a nearly sightless left eye, was trying to repair his mutilated fingertips with some druggist's nostrum. Johnny Petraglia attacked his blister problem with ethyl chloride, and Don Johnson's wife carved a hole in a raw potato so he could stick in his aching thumb. No, weekend tube watchers, this was not an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D. It was the beginning of pro bowling's 1972 winter tour, its 11th straight year on live national television, and the top bowlers of America were literally working their fingers to the bone.

Money, of course, is the best balm for such occupational hazards as raw digits. And the U.S. Open, staged at New York's Madison Square Garden Lanes and sponsored by the Bowling Proprietors Association of America, had $100,000 to offer in the way of pain-killer, $25,000 more than last year. Close to 200 professionals started out Monday in quest of the $10,000 first prize, and six days later, after toppling the usual forest of pins—the top 24 competitors laid out more than a quarter of a million of them before the finals—it all came down to steady Don Johnson, whose consistent form made it look as though he could roll his potato down the lane and get his share of strikes.

Johnson, whose friendly smile and boyish good looks tempt inquiries like why didn't he try out for the role of Pat Boone, is a hard-concentrating, 31-year-old champion who burns to excel. He is the second-biggest money-winner in Professional Bowlers Association history—$275,675 lifetime, about 100 grand behind Dick Weber—and at the rate he is scattering wood (three firsts and a second in his last four tournaments) you have to conclude that he will be No. 1 eventually and for a long, long time. In all, he and the other PBA bowlers have more than $2 million in prize money to shoot for on the 1972 tour.

Instead of the usual black hard-rubber ball, righthander Johnson uses a plastic one that appears to have a caramel topping on it. He insists that it is "softer" than even black plastic balls, and will skid 15 feet farther down the alley than a rubber one before starting to hook. (Pro bowlers are very particular about not starting their hooks too soon.) Naturally, he is well paid to endorse his brand of ball, as well as gloves and sportswear. He buys his own bowling shoes, but it's probably worth it. At least, he doesn't get blisters on his feet.

His main rival on the tour right now is young Brooklyn lefthander Johnny Petraglia. Johnson had the highest pin-fall average in 1971 (nearly 214 in well over 1,000 games) and the most tournament victories (six), but Petraglia made a phenomenal eight of a possible 13 TV finals on the winter tour and ended the year winning $85,065, the best one-season haul ever. Johnson was right behind with $81,349, and the vote for bowler of the year, to be announced later this month, was no doubt extremely close.

Thus, it was no surprise when Johnson and Petraglia finished first and second after the first 56 games of the BPAA Open and moved, once again, into the five-man finals Saturday afternoon, a regular TV format.

Spectator space is scanty at the 48-alley Garden Lanes, so for the finals the troupe moved four floors down to the comfortable, 5,000-seat Felt Forum. Unlike downstairs at the White House, there are no bowling alleys in the Forum. So the AMF people spent $12,000 trucking in the makings for two lanes—automatic pinsetters included—from Shelby, Ohio and installing them in three days. That meant the finalists would have to adjust to brand-new lanes, then possibly adjust again quickly if, as it soon turned out, the hot TV lights changed conditions.

Joining the two kingpins on the show were experienced pros George Pappas of Charlotte, N.C., and Earl Anthony of Tacoma, Wash., and the one surprise, second-year man Bobby Williams, 23, of Detroit, the first black bowler to get on PBA TV since 1962. In his seven previous tournaments, Williams had not only never reached the top 24 but had never earned one cent of pin money.

Williams shrugged off a second-frame split that he couldn't convert and went on to beat Anthony 216-200. The hot lights and the pressure finally got to him in the second match and he lost to Pappas 192-163. The low scores reflected the bowlers' difficulty in finding a line on the new lanes. Then Pappas stepped up to upset Petraglia on the strength of a fluky strike in the 10th frame, coupled with a bad (and inconvertible) Petraglia split. As Petraglia walked away after the loss, it must have struck him that the place was quiet enough to hear a bowling ball drop, so that's precisely what he did with his, reverberatingly and with clear disgust.

Johnson's first place entitled him to sit by with his newly polished Karamel-Kolored ball while the others fought to see who would challenge him in the title match. Meanwhile, the potato, or something, had done its work. Johnson's hand was ready for Pappas.

In the final match Johnson started out as though he would not only annihilate his last opponent but would win ABC's $10,000 perfect-game bonus. He had six straight strikes before faltering. That seemed to spur Pappas, who closed out with seven straight strikes of his own—but not enough to overcome Johnson's lead. The final score was 233-224.

It was a clear victory for raw potato therapy.