Lawn bowling finds modern appeal | News | Palo Alto Online |


Lawn bowling finds modern appeal

A sport widely popular in British Commonwealth countries captivates locals

John MacMorris, left, Sam Hebert, right, bowl during a draw game on the lawn bowling green on Oct. 31, 2017. MacMorris and Hebert were the "skips" of their teams, equivalent to a team captain. Photo by Veronica Weber.

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

Contributing writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


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Like this comment
Posted by Question
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 3, 2017 at 8:45 am

Are you sure the bowls are not round, I thought they were just weighted with a bias which means there is a great deal of skill involved to hit the jack ball. The ones I have seen look round to me but they have a dimple to show where to place the thumb for the bias.

The shoes are important as for a bowling green the soles have to be completely flat to do least amount of damage to the pristine lawn. Sneakers are OK as long as they have completely flat soles.

1 person likes this
Posted by Really?
a resident of Duveneck School
on Nov 6, 2017 at 11:32 am

Sorry, is there anything more whiter than a Palo Alto Online article outlining how the attire for lawn bowling is changing? A game from the 13th century primarily played in British Commonwealths just screams diversity.

10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 6, 2017 at 1:20 pm

I think that diversity means that occasionally an article about a sport played by an elderly white population shows that there are more interesting sports than football and basketball which also seem to have their own demographic players and supporters.

By all means, let's have all types of sports written up not just those followed by a subset of our population.

6 people like this
Posted by Alice Smith
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 6, 2017 at 10:29 pm

Lawn bowling is great fun, is multi-generational, is multi-cultural and open to anyone who wants to have a try. Sundays there are volunteers who help people try their hand. The bowls are weighted and are different sizes and weights. The Club provides bowls for learning.

Come have fun.

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