|Photo courtesy PBA LLC|
A few weeks ago, I was watching one of the highly entertaining PBA Seniors tournaments from 1996, rebroadcast on ESPN Classic, and an astonishing occurrence in bowling history was brought to my attention during the typical wonderful commentary provided by the PBA expert announcing tandem of Mike Durbin and Earl Anthony. John Handegard was the top seed in this particular seniors event, and it was mentioned along the way that John had recently (in 1995) won a pro tour on the PBA national circuit. Knowing how good of a competitor Handegard was on the senior tour, I just had to research this further, and what I found was what has to be one of the most phenomenal performances in the history of the Professional Bowlers Association.
Before going into details, it should be emphasized that Handegard is the winningest senior player in PBA history, amassing 14 titles in his career, and at the time of the 1995 PBA Northwest Open (national) event, he currently held 10 senior tour wins. Handegard competed on the national tour in the mid-1970s with mild success, but never won an event. In his later years, he dedicated totally to working on his game through a lot of hard work, diligence, and determination, and kept himself in tip-top physical condition. In 1995 at 57 years of age, with such glowing success on the senior tour, Handegard felt his game was good enough to once again compete with the younger players on the national tour, and so he entered the Northwest Open, held at Celebrity Bowl in Kennewick, Washington during the week of July 7-11.
With John advancing to the final day of competition, his overall 5th seeding positioned him on the bottom rung in the stepladder finals. On the night before the finals, Handegard made a statement for the tournament by stinging bowling legend, Walter Ray Williams, as John edged Walter Ray in the overall head-to-head match play for that all-important 5th seeding. The ladder included a real all-star cast with 44 national titles amongst the top 4 seeds, and the first match featured Handegard facing the then 23-time tour winner, Mike Aulby. Aulby had recently come off stellar wins at the Brunswick World Tournament of Champions and the American Bowling Congress (ABC) Bud Light Masters, and was primed and ready to ascend the stepladder himself. Handegard performed in his usual, gritty manner, and defeated Aulby 215-205.
It didn't get any easier for John, as his next match pitted his skills against those of another of the PBA's greatest players, Norm Duke. A berth in the championship match would have ensured Norm of being the 16th player in PBA history to eclipse the $1 million dollar mark in his career, so it's no surprise that Duke was focused and at the top of his game. As the match proceeded and progressed, Handegard's prowess as an extremely tough match-play opponent proved itself accordingly. Handegard rolled 9 strikes in the match, and never trailed, closing out the contest with a crucial 5-bagger to assure victory, 239-225 against the always formidable Duke.
With 2 mammoth seeds out of the way, John inched closer to PBA immortality, but now was matched against Bryan Goebel. Bryan had recently claimed a tour victory himself in 1995, and looked unstoppable, as he opened with 6 strikes in a row out the gate. However, it was Goebel's misfortune to have an opponent like Handegard, whose reputation preceeds him as the most dogged competitor on the senior tour, as he seems to excel when backed up against the wall. John proved true to his moniker, as he hung with Goebel, withstanding the young lion's first-half onslaught. In the 8th frame, Goebel's shot came in high, leaving him with the dreaded 4-6-10 split. This was all the opening Handegard needed, as he was able to deliver his own critical blows by game's end, and capture a narrow 237-235 victory.
The championship was now set, and a seemingly unlikely pairing was now the focus of the tournament. Mark Williams, a veteran of the tour and 6-time champion who was hungry to claim victory once again after a 7-year drought, looked exceedingly strong as he was in the midst of a resurgence in his game, and was well-deserving as the tournament leader. In a pre-match interview earlier in the day, Williams, obviously not knowing who his opponent was going to be, was confident in his ability, and speculated that if he could roll a game between 240 and 250, he felt that his chances were good to come away with a win. Mark was dominant during the week, averaging 239 for the tournament going into the final game, with a high game of 300, and a low game of 206 for the event.
The match opened, and as all of John's opponents had done previously, Williams elected to have Handegard start the match. After 4 frames, Mark was true to form, with a 4-bagger to start, while John went strike, spare, and then a double-header. Williams left a 4-pin in the 5th and 6th frames, while Handegard added 2 more strikes to claim the lead, heading down the stretch. Williams struck in the 7th, but in the 8th frame, as Bryan Goebel had done in the previous match, Williams plowed through the middle, leaving the 4-6-7 split. A potentially deflating occurrence sooned turned to jubilation, as Mark hit the 4-7 solid, and bounced a pin out of the pit to knock over the lone 6-pin. Such a pivotal and clutch turnaround was treated with the respect it deserved, as Handegard gave Williams a pat on the back. Mark, now with renewed life, had shifted the pressure back onto Handegard. As a testament to John's competitive nature, he was unphased, and struck again in the 8th and 9th frames. Williams now had to finish first, and was in a 'must-strike' situation. Being the champion that he is, Mark came through with a lot of heart, striking in the 9th, 10th, and 11th frames, with a 9-drop on his twelfth shot for a 247 score. As was the case all day for Handegard, he once again had to perform in the 10th frame, needing a mark to win. Handegard delivered the ball--and ultimately delivered for the tournament, as he struck again, and then finished out with a simply tremendous 278-247 victory.
The crowd in attendance, appreciative at what they had witnessed, gave Handegard a deserved, standing ovation. John, in his typical non-chalant manner as he waited for his ball to come back in the ball return, could only humbly utter the words, "Unbelievable! What a rush.", realizing what he had just accomplished. At age 57, Handegard became the oldest player to ever win a PBA national tour event.
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