Last month a shy woman with curly brown hair and glasses arrived at the PBA's Banquet Open to little fanfare. O.K., no fanfare. Liz Johnson drove six hours from her home in upstate Cheektowaga, N.Y., to Wyoming, Mich., hoping to make a little cash. The thought of making history didn't cross her mind. "Honestly," she says, "I didn't think I was good enough to bowl on the men's tour."
After Johnson qualified for the 64-player field, it became apparent that she could hold her own. In fact, she knocked out four men--including Chris Barnes, who is No. 2 on the PBA points list--to become the first woman to reach a championship round since the PBA began in 1958. By the semifinals, on March 20, she was on the verge of history--and nausea. "I had a hard time eating and sleeping all week," she says. "My anxiety was crazy. I thought I was going to throw up." But Johnson, 30, kept her cool during ESPN's live broadcast, rolling a 235 to beat Wes Malott before losing 219-192 to Tommy Jones.
The Banquet wasn't the first time Johnson had bowled in a pro tournament, or against men. She won 11 Professional Women's Bowling Association events before that league folded in 2003. But in her only other pro competition against men, at the Uniroyal Tire Classic in November (when she became the first woman to qualify for a PBA event), she lost in the first round. Still, her performance in Michigan--where her average was 228.2--had opponents raving. "I was always curious how women would do," says Jack Jurek, a pro from Lancaster, N.Y. "[Liz] has proven that they can play with us."
Growing up in Niagara Falls, N.Y., the daughter of a nurse and an accountant, Johnson never imagined being anything other than a pro bowler. She picked up the game from her grandfather at age four and practiced religiously, setting up milk cartons as pins in the hallway. After winning two U.S. Amateur titles the muscular, 5'7" Johnson competed in the women's league for eight years, honing her powerful style. When the PWBA folded, Johnson, who was dipping into her savings to pay her mortgage while working part time at a pro shop, gave the men's tour a shot.
With her first championship-round appearance under her belt and a $20,000 check from the Banquet in her bank account, Johnson is competing in this week's Denny's World Championship in Taylor, Mich., the final full-field event of the season. In June she will bowl in the PBA's Tour Trials, where a top 10 finish will mean a full-time tour exemption for next season. "I went into [the Banquet] feeling like I didn't have to prove anything to anybody," she says. "Now I want to prove to myself that I can play on the men's tour. Hopefully this will open doors for women in the future." --Yi-Wyn Yen
The Striking Sex
Though he calls Liz Johnson bowling's Annika Sorenstam, Brad Angelo isn't sure women can hang tough with men on the lanes. "On a week in, week out basis, only a handful of women can keep up with the men," he says. "It comes down to a strength issue. Most women don't have the strength." But as fellow pro Jack Jurek points out, "It doesn't matter if you're big or tall, male or female. The objective is to be accurate. I don't see this being a problem for women." Bowler Chris Barnes agrees and says that one need look no further than the top of the alltime money list: "Walter Ray Williams has one of the weakest releases on tour, and he's one of the most successful guys of all time." And as Wes Malott notes, not all male bowlers can boast of super strength: "It's not a physical sport. A few of us, including myself, are overweight and don't work out every day. This sport is more mental than physical."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
PAUL L. NEWBY II/THE GRAND RAPIDS PRESS/AP (JOHNSON, JONES)
HEAR HIM ROAR
Jones (top) was relieved to beat the scrappy Johnson in the finals.
WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION (BOWLERS)