By all rights, Nelson Burton Jr. probably should have been at home in St. Louis last Saturday watching the finals of the Grand Prix of Bowling on TV. But there he was in Reno, winning the tournament when two legends unexpectedly fell off their pedestals.
Burton barely sneaked into the wrap-up at the MGM Grand Hotel Saturday afternoon, then watched in amazement as Earl Anthony and Mark Roth, the most prominent names in the sport over the last few years, both failed to convert easy spares, giving Burton the $10,000 first-place prize in the men's division.
Burton's victory route was much more arduous than that of Cheryl Robinson, the women's champion, who led after five of the six stages and thus had a downhill run through the 38-game qualifying round. Burton, meanwhile, stole the fourth and last spot in qualifying, although his scoring average was almost 10 pins a game lower than that of the third-place finisher, George Pappas. In fact, three nonqualifiers had better averages than Burton, but Burton accumulated important bonus points by winning 14 of 20 games in match play.
"The other players seemed to beat themselves," said the surprised Burton. It was a fair assessment. First he defeated Pappas by two pins, rolling a 217 in the first match on Saturday. Then, in the semifinals, Burton met Anthony, who had been second in the qualifying to Roth. However, Anthony left two open frames against Burton, inexplicably missing a pair of conversions on spares, and scored a 213 as Burton rolled a winning total of 223.
In the finals, Roth was rolling along, blasting pins apart with his wrecker's-ball delivery, until the fifth frame, when he stumbled on his approach and failed to convert the 2-5. That was hardly typical of the tour's top money-winner ($134,000) and its leader in tournament wins (eight). Shaken, Roth left the 6-10 standing in the next frame, missed the spare—and wound up with a disastrous 184. His score was two pins less than Cheryl Robinson's winning score against Donna Adamek in the women's finals. Burton cruised to the title with a 216.
The season-ending AMF Grand Prix involved 40 bowlers. 20 men and 20 women, with each group rolling for $50,000 in prize money. Most of the entrants qualified on the basis of season-long point standings; however, five bowlers in each division got sponsor's exemptions. One was Doris Coburn, a grandmother and Hall of Famer from Buffalo who refuses to reveal her age. "I can't tell you that," said Frank, her husband. "If I did she'd kill me." Frank won't give his age, either. "If you find out how old she is," he said, "just add two and that's me." Sometimes Frank won't even give his name. "They've called me Doris' husband so long that I can't remember it," he said.
The Coburns are typical of the familial side of pro bowling. Burton's father, Nelson, was one of the alltime greats, a man with a classic delivery who later became a highly successful hustler. Several pro bowlers are married to each other. Cheryl Robinson's husband, Jay, won the men's Grand Prix last year (he failed to survive the qualifying rounds this year). Many of the women bowlers travel with their husbands, who double as coaches and advisers. Frank Coburn, a short, slight man with a cheerful, toothy face, has kept charts of women's tournaments over the last 10 years. He is a former car salesman who now bills himself as a pro bowling coach. The Coburns' three daughters all are excellent bowlers.
To prepare for the Grand Prix, the Coburns practiced twice daily for two 'months, Frank coaching Doris on technique. In Reno, with only five games remaining in qualifying, Doris was in 10th place, and she was huddling frequently with Frank.
The battle for the fourth and last qualifying spot seemed to be between Bev Ortner and Betty Morris, the Grand Prix champion the last two years. Morris, however, was upset by the death of her father on Tuesday—"She's not herself at all," said her husband. Bob—while Ortner also was bowling inconsistently. In her last four games, Ortner averaged only 163. Morris was several lanes away, bowling against Coburn. As Coburn strung together four strikes to beat Morris and clinch fourth place, Frank burst into applause. "The way she keeps me jumping, she has to be after my life insurance," he wheezed. "She asked me the other day what double indemnity is."
The men's qualifying was just as heated. Heading into the final night's action, Burton was fourth, only nine pins ahead of Ernie Schlegel, the tour's version of Captain Midnight. Schlegel is a creator of exotic bowling apparel who has his costumes custom-made in New York's Greenwich Village. A blithe nomad who lists his hometown as U.S.A., Schlegel also has a "mental adviser" traveling with him—John Mazzio, a former IBM employee from Chicago. Mazzio is working on Schlegel's "negative pattern and teaching Ernie to understand himself." Schlegel, a tour nonwinner, has a notebook in which he writes down everything Mazzio tells him. He should have used it for reference Friday night; he never found his stroke, won only one match and dropped to eighth place and a check for $1,800.