For now, only about 200 do it near the bay in Sarasota, although more than 500 used to do it at least a couple of times a week. Before fish and chips, McCartney, Harry Potter, Diana, William and Kate, it was the hottest thing we had in common with the British. And it takes balls. Crooked balls at that. The faithful say it’s bowls, not balls. Black bowls. Red bowls. Blue bowls. Green bowls. It’s relaxing and enjoyable. Part pastime and part sport. Laid back, friendly people, kibitzing and schmoozing with a hint of competition. Lots of smiles. Some cringes and grimaces and, as with other sporty pastimes, some mumble, grumble and coax inanimate objects. “C’mon! Left, left, left. Slower. Slooower!” “It’s fun and a good time with some really nice people,”gushes the upbeat and passionate lawn bowling booster and gung-ho Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club (SLBC) president Daniel Jittu. “Besides, the Scottish who settled in Sarasota brought the game over and it has been an area tradition for almost 90 years.”

Tucked away on the Bayfront, next to the Municipal Auditorium, just on the other side of the chain link fence along Tamiami Trail, behind the green-on-green wooden sign and the wafting breezes from the bay are the manicured SLBC greens. It’s all that remains of Sarasota’s once-bustling, 11-acre badminton, shuffleboard, lawn bowling and tennis courts recreation complex. It’s where Sarasota foursomes come together in fresh whites, casual outfits or (on special days) in the new purple and white Jeanette, Scott, Laurie, Jo and Judy-embroidered team shirts. Jittu coos and cajoles that it’s a bit like golf. He’s forgiven for just being in enthusiastic sell-mode, constantly pitching the joys of the game, the Sarasota club and doing whatever it takes to drum-up new members. Lawn bowling is absolutely nothing like golf. “It’s a bit like golfing,” he shrugs with a mischievous smile. “Because once you get into it, you’re hooked and you want to be close to where you can play.” Maybe vaguely similar to Italian bocce, lawn bowling is played on natural grass. According to Jittu, curling started by people who loved lawn bowling so much, they wanted to keep doing it in winter.

When it’s game time, the players roll the white bowl (the jack) down the lane, it is centered and the players then roll their lopsided 3-3.5 pound colored bowls down the green, trying to get as many as possible stopping closest to the jack, for points or shots. Some popular bowl-lobbing strategies include a drive or a fire or a strike, knocking the jack toward other bowls or knocking other bowls out of the way or the forehand draw, the finger peg, backhand draw or an upshot, a yard on or a thumb peg.

The object of the game is to have as many bowls as close to the jack as possible. The usually hour and a half game rolls on until one player or the team reaches a designated number of points or shots or by playing a certain number or rounds or ends.“Lawn bowling is a thinking person’s game,”Jittu says. “Like the strategy of chess. Really great bowlers usually think and play four to five bowls ahead.” He doesn’t need a reason for his gung-ho boosting of the spirit and the camaraderie of lawn bowling and especially the exposure and profile of his beloved Sarasota Club. “The sport has undergone several transitions and is constantly changing. Yes, it had elitist stereotypes,” he winces. “About six years ago, sport officials allowed bowls in several colors and to emphasize the relaxed feel, about half of players wear whites, others just wear regular shorts.”

Jittu says that aside from the basic game rules, the only unwritten rule is the tradition that everyone shakes hands before and after each game. He mentions that although many of the local club’s 200 long-term members may be retired or seniors, interest in the sport and memberships are growing and freshening-up the demos. Stats show that the average age for American lawn bowlers is 40-55, and internationally, it’s a surprising 25-33. “About three years ago, a 17-year-old won the U.S. Open,” he beams. Jittu has various dynamic plans and projects on-the-go to not only kick start lawn bowling in Sarasota but to make the city a nationally and internationally-recognized lawn bowling hot spot.

And it’s happening! Local TV features reruns of matches and lawn bowling tips. There’s an open-door policy for new players, first-timers are dropping-in and membership is growing. A youth summer mini-league with students from the Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences. Last year, SLBC hosted a series of Canada vs. Scotland exhibition games for the national teams.

Jittu’s determined passion for his sport and his club recently paid off big-time. Triggered by a wild and unlikely idea, he spent months daringly lobbying for community and business support. After huddling with Sarasota County Sports Development and Athletics Manager Pat Calhoon and City Public Works General Manager Todd Kucharski, they put together an impressive bid proposal for the gutsy Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club to host lawn bowlers from Australia, Spain, Scotland, Canada, China, Ireland and England to compete at the prestigious U.S. Open, staged annually by Bowls USA.

Jittu and Sarasota officials were thrilled when Bowls USA announced the 2016 and 2017 international U.S. Open Lawn Bowling Championships will be held in Sarasota. Although the enjoyable schedule continues, the Club is undergoing important maintenance and renovations to not only ensure being ready with the necessary world-class conditions for the thousands of lawn bowlers and visitors to the Suncoast, but to boost the rank of Sarasota as a lawn bowling hot spot of the world. SRQ

PHOTOGRAPHY BY EVAN SIGMUND AND COURTESY OF AMERICAN SPIRIT.