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How They Roll Lawn Bowlers Play for Sport, Fun, Camaraderie By SHERRI CRUZ Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mert Isaacman broke his back playing rugby when he was 30. So his late father suggested he take up a more genteel game, lawn bowling. “That’s old man’s marbles,” Isaacman scoffed. His father challenged him to a game. They wagered $100. Long story short, Isaacman lost. Ever since, he’s been hooked on lawn bowling, sometimes called lawn bowls or just bowls. It’s a game similar to bocce ball and more common in Britain than in Orange County. “It’s like an addiction,” Isaacman said. “I practice every day for an hour.” Isaacman owns Costa Mesa-based Southern Sun Construction Co., a builder of apartments, office buildings and retail space. He plays at the Newport Harbor Lawn Bowling Club in Corona del Mar. He heads there after work and plays until around 7 p.m. Lawn bowling is played outside on what looks like putting greens. Players roll a slightly asymmetrical ball—or “bowl”—down a lane called a “rink.” The object is to get your bowl closest to a white or yellow ball, dubbed a “jack.” Because bowls aren’t completely round, they roll with a curve, which makes the sport tricky. Players can play socially, with flip-flops and a beer in hand, or they can compete “in whites”— a white shirt, pants or shorts, socks and shoes—in weekend tournaments. The top bowlers compete internationally. Isaacman, who’s been playing internationally since 1992, is among the older players in lawn bowling. He’s coached younger players and is one of the sport’s most vocal advocates. “Mert is a great ambassador for the sport,” said Charlie Herbert, one of the younger bowlers at 47. “I look at him as a mentor.” Herbert teaches kite surfing and dabbles in foreign exchange trading from his home in Rancho Santa Margarita, which allows him a flexible schedule. He’s become one of the top bowlers in the U.S. in the four years that he’s played. “It comes down to the number of bowls you roll,” Herbert said. “I’m fortunate enough to spend

more time practicing.” The Newport Harbor Lawn Bowling Club, founded near the Balboa pier in 1938, boasts many of the top U.S. players, including Herbert, Isaacman, Michael Siddall, a travel agent, and Joe Regan, a Costa Mesa-based photographer. “We are kind of the Mecca of lawn bowling,” said Phil Luth, president of the club and retired owner of a small retail chain. “We happen to have a lot of champions.” Orange County is home to several clubs, including ones in Irvine, San Clemente, Santa Ana and Laguna Beach. The southwest division, including its OC clubs, is the largest of seven divisions across the country. Weather is the main reason why there are a lot of players in Southern California, said Athol Foden, a spokesman for the US Lawn Bowls Associa-tion, a volunteer group that’s the sport’s governing body. “They are able to practice more,” he said. In all, there are about 6,000 lawn bowlers in the U.S. They play at 140 clubs across the nation. In late September and early October, 500 players from around the world are set to come here for the U.S. Open tournament, held at OC clubs. The Newport Harbor club is set to host opening ceremonies. Its clubhouse has a large kitchen, a big-screen TV, men’s and women’s locker rooms, barbecues, wireless Internet access and two greens in a park setting. “It’s become known to us as one of the best kept secrets in Orange County,” said Herbert, whose wife, Cathie Herbert, 46, also plays. Cathie Herbert is director of communications for San Diego-based clothing chain Charlotte Russe Holding Inc. When Charlie Herbert first joined the club, he said he wrote a check for $125 and asked where to send the next month’s check. “No, no, no,” they said, “that’s for the year.” It’s a good deal, said Brian Stewart, a lawyer who runs his own practice, The Law office of Brian Stewart in Newport Beach. “A round of golf costs more than a year’s membership at the lawn bowling club,” he said. The Newport Harbor club leases its clubhouse from the city and pays for the upkeep of the

greens. A portion of club fees goes to the US Lawn Bowls Association. The club, in San Joaquin Hills Park, has about 200 members, including 50 who signed up at a recent open house. Charlie Herbert came to an open house at Newport Harbor four years ago. “We came all dressed up like we were going to a yacht club, not knowing what we would find,” he said. “We just found a great group of people down here.” There’s no country club air, “just down to earth, real good people,” Herbert said. The annual open house, held at bowling clubs across the nation, is how clubs recruit newcomers. Sport Abroad Lawn bowling loses a number of players every year when bowlers get too old to play. In the U.S., most of the lawn bowlers are 50 or older. In the rest of the world, they’re 20somethings. “When I go overseas, I’m probably the oldest in the tournament,” Isaacman said. The sport is big in Europe, Malaysia, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. “Here it’s an upcoming sport,” Regan said. “It’s known in the retirement community.” In other countries, the game is more competitive with “coaches and trainers, the whole bit,” he said. Regan, 39, has bowled for Team USA in Hong Kong and China. In international competition, there are medals and cash prizes. Men and women compete separately. Newport Harbor has several competitive women players, including Anne Nunes, Jan Hargraves and Dee McSparran, who is one of the top players in the nation. Nunes, an engineer for Boeing Co. in Long Beach, said her father encouraged her to play. “I started playing with him,” she said. “He taught me how and then I got hooked.” Nunes has been playing for 13 years.

The bowlers say the best part of lawn bowling is the camaraderie. “It’s about more than the bowling,” lawyer Stewart said. “Our club is a lot more social than some of the other clubs.” Stewart’s dad and brother also are members. Sometimes they all bowl together. “A lot of times when we use the clubhouse, we’ll come up, watch TV, play some cards, eat some dinner and not even bowl,” Herbert said. “It’s hard to explain how nice everybody is in lawn bowling world,” Regan said. “It’s a huge family around the world.”