On a recent Sunday afternoon, players looking to pick up a game of lawn bowling streamed into the Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club, towing their bowls in colorful rolling backpacks.
They chatted and watched the final minutes of a 49ers game on a TV in the clubhouse while waiting for the ringing of a brass hand bell to signal that it's time to draw for teams.
"We're very democratic," said longtime player Terry Hogan of Palo Alto, as the 20 or so players who had shown up to test their skills on the green were randomly divided into teams of three or four.
Bowlers play according to skill level: "lead," "vice" or "skip." They roll their "bowls" — not "balls" because they're asymmetrical rather than perfectly round — across the manicured green. The bowls curve because of their shape. The objective is to roll a bowl that stops as near as possible to the small, white ball called a jack.
Players say they enjoy the challenge, camaraderie and "pickupability" of the game.
"It's lots of fun and not too serious — well, there are a few who are serious but the rest of us are here to have a good time," said Kevin O'Leary of Mountain View, who took up lawn bowling three years ago at the urging of his wife, a longtime player.
O'Leary is among the newer players at the Palo Alto club who have taken up the sport, which has been around since the 13th century and traditionally has enjoyed wider popularity in the British Commonwealth countries.
Tucked behind the Gamble estate on Embarcadero Road, the 84-year-old club has a long history in Palo Alto. The club welcomes newcomers as well as outside rental groups to try out the sport at its Old Palo Alto playing venue and has dropped some of the more traditional game etiquette — such as wearing white attire — as part of its push to continuously attract more players.
"We've got rid of of the old traditions of wearing white," said John Hickson of Menlo Park, a past club president and transplant from England. "The formality turned a lot of people off and slowly it changed over a period of years."
Though some tournaments still call for white attire, Palo Alto lawn bowlers typically show up in slacks, jeans or shorts of many hues and patterns, polo shirts or T-shirts and sneakers — and always hats to protect against the sun.
The casual aspect of the game is what attracted Christine Stafford to play.
Stafford became a lawn bowler 10 years ago after she retired.
"When I was growing up in Palo Alto, I rode my bike past the club many times and figured it was a game for really old people so I never went near," said Stafford, who now admits that she was mistaken.
"Just about any age can play, and you don't have to be super athletic," she said. "I love playing because of the wonderful, friendly members and because it gets me out of the house."
Menlo Park resident Tom Dodd calls lawn bowling a game of finesse.
"I haven't played enough — not enough to really get finesse. I like to be competitive; I like to win. But more important here is the camaraderie," said Dodd, who also plays golf and used to play cricket.
Joy Guy of Cupertino, who became a lawn bowler after learning how to play the game while on vacation in Australia, said it takes about two years to get consistent. "You get a real sense of accomplishment when you do it right. It takes a lot of practice ... but it feels good," Guy said.
Retired nurse Carrie Chiang, who took up the sport with her husband less than two years ago and now also plays at other Bay Area lawn bowling clubs, including venues in Sunnyvale, San Jose, San Francisco and Berkeley, said the game can be very dramatic.
"The common belief is that lawn bowling does not involve too much exercise, but you have to be in good shape to roll thousands of bowls to become a good bowler," she said.
For more information about the Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club go to palbc.org.
Contributing writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.