Roll On
Laguna lawn bowling marks 75 years of the ancient game at Heisler Park.
By Barbara Diamond
(Published: March 30, 2006)

The ancient sport of lawn bowling is nothing new in Laguna.
The location of the Laguna Beach club, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary on Saturday, and the greens on which lawn bowling is played is no accident.

"Other clubs will be participating in the celebration, but we are holding this to show our residents what fun it is," club President Linda Jahraus said. "Lawn bowing is played all over the world. It's called bocce in Italy, boules in France. Ancient Egypt had a similar game."

Avid bowler Harlan S. Kittle moved to Laguna from Beverly Hills shortly after Laguna Beach was incorporated in 1927. He immediately began a campaign to develop a bowling green on the point of the cliff in the parkland deeded to Orange County by Howard Heisler in 1924. Kittle even tried to buy the lone house opposite the site, but the Jahraus family, who owned the home then as it does now, was unwilling to sell.

It was from the front porch of that home, the residence of her in-laws, Richard and Beverly Jahraus, that Linda Jahraus first saw lawn bowling and decided to give it a try.

The object of the game is to make points by getting one's ball, or bowl, closest to a small white ball called the "jack," which may lay anywhere from 75 to 108 feet away from the bowler.

"What makes lawn bowling special is that the ball rolls on the bias, which makes the game more challenging and requires strategy," Jahraus said.

The lop-sided ball always curves toward the flat side as it slows down. It takes skill -- some fans call it an art -- to gauge the curve to reach the jack, especially if an opponent has guard balls blocking the path.

"It's a good outlet for competitive people and can be played by individuals or teams of two, three or four," Jahraus said.

Lawn Bowling was first played in Laguna on Nov 2, 1931 on a green installed by the bowlers. Laguna Beach Woman's Club members helped in the planting.

The lawn bowling club boasted 114 members on opening day.

Sports trivia fans might be delighted to know that the membership has included Gavvy Cravath, Babe Ruth's predecessor at home run king, and Jimmy Austin, third baseman for the old St. Louis Browns.

A club house was built in 1933, mainly to store the bowls. As the popularity of the sport grew, so did the club. A second green was added in 1952, qualifying the club for tournament play. A tournament in 1953 drew 30 teams with 89 men and one woman participating.

The City Council declared Laguna Beach the lawn bowling capital of the United States in 1957.

Capital or not, the council denied the club permission to add a third green in 1958, but a new clubhouse was approved and built in 1968.

Reservations are not required for the use of the greens, but bowlers must be club members.

"Members get keys and can use the greens at any time," Jahraus said.

Bowlers pay $1 per key use, whether they play one game or all day. Annual dues are $100.

The club will be selling hot dogs on Saturday to raise funds to buy small bowls to start a junior program.

Youngsters in the program will learn will learn a game remarkably similar to the game 14th Century bowlers played.

Although the rules of lawn bowling have changed over time, the fundamentals seem to have remained consistent, certainly since the 1300s, according to Jahraus.

Historians suggest that the game made its way across Europe with Julius Caesar's troops and became entrenched in the British Isles. The Southampton Old Bowling Green Club, organized in A.D. 1299, is still active, the oldest on record.

The sport remains popular in England, Canada and Scotland, where Glasgow boasts 200 public bowling greens, including enclosed ones for winter play.

Among the legends that brighten the history of the game: Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh were said to be in the middle of a game when word reached them of the impending assault by the Spanish Armada. The story goes that Drake insisted on finishing the game before settling sail. In fact, Jahraus said, Drake had to wait for the incoming tide to peak before he could get his ship out of the harbor.

The American Revolution and anti-British sentiment stifled the game in the American "Colonies," but Canadians kept it alive in the New World.

New Jersey is credited with the resurrection of lawn bowling in the United States. A small private club was started on the Atlantic coast in 1879. Two years later, it had spread to the Pacific shore.

Modern rules vary somewhat from country to country and the bowls vary in size, weight and degree of bias, depending on local conditions. British bowlers prefer lighter balls for their wet, soft grass. Floridians prefer a minimum bias, Californians choose heavier ones. Every green has its peculiarities, just like golf courses.

Rules of attire are a significant tradition in lawn bowling, depending on the country or in some cases, the club. Canadians specify a unified shoe color. Australians have the option of white or tan shoes to go with their required hats, ties, blazers, shirts, long trousers and socks. Americans can wear any shoe color.

The Newport Beach Club and Laguna's club have no color code for week-day pick-up games.

However, all-white remains de rigueur in Laguna for week-end bowlers, some holidays and tournaments, although teams may wear matching colored shirts, according to club Secretary Patty Cutkomp. Laguna's shirts are blue.

"Men and women are allowed to wear shorts, just not those dinky ones," Cutkomp said. "They must come within a certain number of inches of the knees."

Cutkomp and her husband, Tom, have been members of the Laguna Beach Club for eight years.

"We were walking past the club and we saw the sign that said free lessons," Cutkomp said. "One lesson and we were hooked. We even have won our share of little trophies."

The club is seeking new members, particularly younger members.

"It's not just a game for retirees," Cutkomp said.

Saturday will be an opportunity for the community to see for itself.

Laguna Beach Lawn Bowling Club 75-year celebrations will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, with games, lessons, prizes and refreshments at the greens in Heisler Park. The public is invited

For more information, call the club at (949) 494-1811 and leave a message, or (949) 497-2793