GRAEME COUSINS talks to Ulster bowler Grant Dugan who has resurrected the NI Open after his own personal fight for life
Having been left for dead in an alley in Newtownards it was an alley of a different kind that helped Grant Dugan to summon the strength to fight for his life.
The 33-year-old said his love of bowling helped him come back from two brain operations and a punctured lung following a brutal attack on Christmas Eve 2005.
Now president of the Northern Ireland Tenpin Bowling Federation (NITBF) Grant wants to attracts more young people to the sport, a feat he hopes to achieve with the resurrection of the NI Open tournament which took place this weekend.
Tenpin bowling: the basics
• bowling balls range in weight from six to 16 pounds, with 15 pound balls being the most commonly used by professionals
• an alley measures 60 feet and is divided into 40 vertical boards which act as guides as to where you want your ball to land
• a game consists of 10 frames in which you get two chances to knock down all 10 pins
• if you knock all the pin down in one go it is a strike, if it takes two turns it is called a spare
• the maximum score is 300
At the tournament which took place on Saturday and Sunday in Dundonald International Ice Bowl the Newtownards man said: “My uncle Paul used to play in the beginners’ league here on a Tuesday. When I was 12 he asked me to come along.
“He passed away from bowel cancer when he was 37. I was 16. I’d got interested in the sport and I kept it on in his memory.”
Three years later when Grant was a university student who had represented his country at tenpin bowling an incident was to take place that left him fighting for his life.
Grant required two emergency brain surgery operations after he was assaulted and stabbed seven times with a broken bottle in an alleyway in Newtownards on Christmas Eve, 2005. He also sustained a punctured lung.
He said: “I spent a week in intensive care over that period. I had two lots of brain surgery.
“I came out of hospital and the first place I came to was Dundonald Ice Bowl. Bowling was my incentive to come out of hospital.
“I was trying to qualify for a European Gold Cup at the time. I was leading the qualifier. I came out of hospital and managed to qualify that year.”
Grant’s sister Lauren, who was also inspired by her uncle Paul to take up bowling 16 years ago, said: “You’re competitors on the lane, but off the lanes we’re all friends. When that happened to Grant the amount of support he had was amazing.”
As president of NITBF, Grant has brought back the NI Open following a 12-year hiatus.
He said: “What I’m trying to do with the NI Open, in the finals stage, is to shorten the format. You play your full games (of 10 frames) in qualifying, but when it gets down to the final eight you play a five frame game in a round robin format against each player.
“It makes it quick, exciting and there’s more tension involved for the players. It’s more exciting for spectators too. As far as I’m aware it’s a world first for this format.”
Grant was full of praise for Dundonald International Ice Bowl: “Dundonald is one of the top centres in the UK and Ireland. The main reason is because the staff and the engineers are involved with bowling and understand the sport.
“There’s a lot more to bowling that meets the eye.”
Addressing the complexities of the sport, Grant spoke of the role oil has to play.
Many will be aware that oil is used to protect the lanes and also give bowling balls that little bit of extra zip on the early part of their journey down the lane, however the oil pattern is a key component in the game when it comes to top level matches.
Grant said: “Normally people coming to a bowling alley will be playing on a house shot – it’s a pattern of about 15 foot of oil and it then tapers off.
“You can have multiple patterns which the oil machine puts down. The more difficult ones are used in tournaments.
“Bowlers will see a diagram of the oil pattern and plan their shot based on that.”
He added: “Anybody playing at a top level standard should be scoring over 200.
“You’re talking 60 to 70% of shots would be a strike – again that would depend on how difficult the oil pattern is.”
Lauren commented: “That’s what makes our sport harder than most. It’s an invisible playing field.
“Each shot that you throw down a lane, the oil is being manipulated. The hardest part of our sport is learning how different oil patterns play out.”
Grant said: “That’s why you see tenpin bowlers carrying so many balls. As the surface changes from start to finish you’ll need to swap balls.
“A top of the range bowling ball is in and around £200. There’s only really one place to buy them locally – from Ryan Press who runs the pro-shop at Dundonald.”
A major advantage of tenpin bowling is that you can just turn up and start playing with no training whatsoever – making it a very popular leisure activity for people of all ages and abilities.
“It has the biggest participation levels of any sport in the world,” said Grant.
“It’s seen a leisure activity but it is also a very competitive sport. When I started bowling I didn’t know there was a Northern Ireland ranking scene. Now that I’m in the position I’m in now and I’ve been through and qualified for Team Northern Ireland and represented them at so many world and European championships I want to be able to give that back to the next generation coming through.”
The World Cup was last hosted in Northern Ireland in 1996, attracting around 90 nations to the Province.
“I would love to bring the World Cup back to Northern Ireland when Dundonald is redeveloped,” said Grant.
The NI Open was supported and sponsored by Lisburn and Castlereagh Council and OubicaAMF – a worldwide bowling equipment provider who also sponsor the World Cup.
One of the biggest names at the tournament was Dubliner Christopher Sloan who competes on the US pro-tour. Christopher is one of a small number of two-handed bowlers who throw the ball down the alley using two hands, a perfectly legitimate technique also favoured by Jason Belmonte winner of 22 Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) majors.
Lauren said: “Asia is probably the biggest place for bowling. The bowlers would be big TV personalities and they advertise things like Coca Cola.”
Siblings Grant and Lauren Dugan have represented Northern Ireland at dozens of tournaments around the world including the World Youth Championships in Orlando, European Champions Cup in Germany and Finland, Commonwealths in South Africa and QubicaAMF World Cup in Siberia.
Grant said: “When we were in Siberia the hotel where the bowling alley was located hadn’t been opened to the public. We were the first to stay it. It was unbelievable.”
He added: “I’d say the best experience was in Orlando. There were 360 competitors from all around the world. I finished 23rd in the singles which was unknown for someone from Northern Ireland. The victory banquet was at Universal Studios. We had a free pass for the day.”
He added: “Bowling is a very social sport. Everyone looks after one another. If you make a friend when you’re travelling through bowling they’ll be a friend for life.”
On June 9 Grant and Lauren will be trying to qualify for the QubicaAMF World Cup in Indonesia at the NI qualifying finals in Dundonald Ice Bowl.
I’d lost love for game, says tournament winner
The winner of the NI Open was Northern Ireland man Billy Nimick who said he had almost given up the sport a few years ago.
He led going into the Top 8 finals on Sunday and emerged victorious in the five frame game format which made for an exciting finale.
The fast-paced format meant one of the competitors – Eoghain Lebioda – being able to jump from seventh to second and nearly beat Billy for the title.
The Belfast man said: “It feels great to win the tournament and it’s made even better by having my wife, mum and daughter there to see it.
“The last four to five years have been tough as a bowler – I got married, had my daughter Emily and had surgery to replace a disc in my neck.
“I lost the love for the game over that time and truthfully never thought I would get it back.”
Billy continued: “The last 18 months or so I have started playing a few NI ranking events and doing quite well – even winning a few, one of which earned me a free entry to the open.
“Winning the NI Open against some top quality players from all over the UK and Ireland makes me think maybe I do still have the ability and desire to compete at a higher level again.”
He added: “I’d like to thank everyone who supported me over the weekend. I’d also like to thank Grant and Lauren Dugan for organising the tournament and the staff at Dundonald International Ice Bowl for their efforts. I hope to see everyone back next year and also some new faces as I look forward to the challenge of defending my title.”
The Mayor of Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council Councillor Alan Givan said: “The Council is honoured to welcome back the NI Open to the bowling centre at Dundonald International Ice Bowl. I was delighted to meet many of the bowlers and their supporters who had travelled to take part in the competition. It was fantastic to watch such an exciting final and I was particularly delighted to see many Northern Ireland bowlers finishing in the top 18.
“I hope everyone enjoyed their time with us and I look forward to welcoming many of the bowlers and their spectators back to the Council area in the very near future.”
The Vice Chair of the Council’s Leisure & Community Development Committee, Councillor Hazel Legge added: “Dundonald International Ice Bowl has a proud history of hosting prestigious sporting events and we are delighted to continue this
success by hosting the NI Open after a 12 year break on the NITBF calendar.
“The event has again attracted many high calibre bowlers and it was particularly pleasing to see Northern Ireland’s Billy Nimick lifting the prestigious winner’s trophy after a gallant performance throughout the weekend.
“I would like to thank the Northern Ireland Tenpin Bowling Federation for organising the event and I hope the achievement of the bowlers will encourage others to learn to bowl or progress within the sport.”