In the Coen brothers' recent kidnap-'n'-bowl caper, The Big Lebowski, a parade of seedy Southern California scoundrels rolls across the screen: gold diggers, blackmailers, pornographers, child molesters and marmot-wielding nihilists. The characters who bowled at last week's U.S. Open in southern Connecticut were more benign but no less colorful: a horseshoe-heaving physicist, pen collectors, coffee muggers, ceramic-frog fetishists and a ferret fancier. "Not many films portray bowling in a positive light," says Walter Ray Williams Jr., the marquee name in the Open's cast of 180 men and 180 women. The seven-day tournament, part of the PBA's Triple Crown, is the only pro event with a men's and a women's field.
The hero of The Big Lebowski is the Dude, a hard-core league bowler who peers warily at life through a haze of White Russians, low-grade Colombian and the occasional acid flashback, and who chills out by listening to audiotapes of falling pins. Williams, who's 38, has some of the Dude's drowsy panache but none of his resolute dissoluteness. "In the movies, bowlers always smoke and drink beer and rent their shoes," says Williams, the PBA's alltime leading money winner ($2,150,000). "I don't do any of those things. Something may be wrong with me, I guess." A onetime physics major at Cal Poly, Williams wrote his senior thesis on the properties of the bowling ball rolling down the lane. It earned him an A, and he has been showing gutter disdain ever since.
Williams admits to only one vice: horseshoes. His four PBA player of the year awards pale—in his mind, at least—next to his six world horseshoe titles, the last of which he won in 1994. He actually prefers the pits to the lanes. "Of the two, horse-shoes probably gets me a little more excited," says Williams, who once pitched 56 ringers in a row. "Well, maybe excited isn't the right word. Maybe emotional is. To me, horseshoes is a purer sport. Bowling is more subject to outside properties, like the oil on the lane or the surface of the ball."
Williams's perennial foil on the PBA tour is Pete Weber, who bears a slight resemblance to The Big Lebowski's chronically irate Walter Sobchak, a Vietnam-obsessed vet who enforces line-foul calls with the semiautomatic in his ball bag. The oft-suspended Weber was banned from the tour's first three tournaments in 1998 for disparaging lane conditions at a '97 event and put in only a cameo at the Open—he missed the first cut and finished in 110th place.
The first few days of qualifying even had an edge of Lebowski-esque surrealism as each field was winnowed down to 45; bowlers rolled against a backdrop of "Cosmic Bowling"—Day-Glo pins, flashing disco lights and the relentless throb of the Village People—a recent innovation for all PBA events that has updated the sport's image from 1953 to, say, '75. Last Wednesday the fields were cut from 45 to 24. Ranked 23rd out of the remaining 24 women was Lisa Wagner, an 18-year veteran who has won more national titles (30) than any female bowler but last won player of the year honors in '93. "But you can't count Lisa out," said her fianc�, Brian Billert. "She's capable of anything." She was not, however, capable of advancing to the next round.
Wagner and Billert met, not surprisingly, at a bowling alley in 1993. He proposed in May 1996 on ESPN after Wagner won the prestigious Queens tournament in Buffalo; She waited until after a commercial break to say "Yes!" They travel the PWBA tour in a motor home they share with six ferrets. "We've got seven litter boxes, just in case," says Billert, whose duties include driving the digs and bathing the ferrets. The couple hopes to open a four-star pet spa in Florida. "Each pet will have its own suite," says Wagner, whose T-shirt advises: NEVER SEND A FERRET TO DO A WEASEL'S JOB. The rooms will have screened lanais and piped-in music. "The music must be chosen carefully," Wagner says. "Dogs howl to opera, so we'll probably play soft rock, like the Eagles."
"Yeah," says Billert. "No Stray Cats."
Ferreting is just one of many fascinating hobbies pursued by women on the tour. Carolyn Dorin-Ballard collects coffee mugs; Debbie McMullen, frog memorabilia; Marianne DiRupo, pens. "I'll be signing an autograph for a fan and say, 'Hey, this is a really nice pen,' " says DiRupo, the top woman qualifier. More often than not, the fan will say, 'You want it? It's yours.' " She now has drawers filled with pens back home in Succasunna, N.J. Her obsession may be genetic—both parents were undergrads at Penn.
For Saturday's semis at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, DiRupo's opponent was her roomie, Aleta Sill. "Marianne lends me Bics, but I lose them," says Sill. "Then she gets mad at me." DiRupo cried when her pin pal struck on six of the last seven throws to beat her 243-208. In the final Sill rolled eight straight strikes in a 276-151 romp over Tammy Turner. The $40,000 purse brought Sill within $82,000 of becoming bowling's first $1 million woman. She dedicated her second Open title to her granny, whose ashes are interred in a tiny urn dangling from a chain around her neck. "I used to worry she'd get wet if I took a shower," says Sill, "but when I unscrewed the urn, it seemed airtight."
Far more airtight than the alibis that Williams has had to come up with for never having won a Triple Crown event despite holding sizable leads on several occasions. He was beaten in the 1989 Tournament of Champions, he blew the '93 U.S. Open after being up by 430 pins, and two years ago he led the PBA National by a wide margin, but a split in the final's ninth frame cost him that tournament. "Know why Walter Ray lost?" asked Butch Soper, his conqueror at that PBA National. "Bad karma. Before the playoffs, he said, 'I beat Butch every time on TV.' You never say stuff like that! You gotta keep your yap shut."