Quick Take:

Two Santa Cruz lawn bowlers are heading to England in January to represent the U.S. in the World Bowls Indoor Championship. They say that while the game is “easy to learn, it’s hard to master,” and expect some extraordinarily stiff competition overseas. Meanwhile, they look to bring more people of all ages to Santa Cruz’s lawn bowling green to foster local interest and keep the likelihood of the bowling green remaining through San Lorenzo Park’s redesign.

Santa Cruz’s Rachel Marcuson and Jesse May have been lawn bowling since only 2018, but they’re already making a name for themselves in the sport.

Five years after first getting into lawn bowling on a whim, the two are headed to England in January for the World Indoor Bowls Championship after winning the Sept. 20 qualifier in San Jose. They will compete among 16 of the top-ranked players in the world and 16 qualifiers at the event.

Now, the pair hope to make the leisurely game more popular locally and challenge notions that lawn bowling is mainly for retirees. “It’s not just for old people anymore,” said May, 34, a sheet metal worker with Geo H. Wilson. Marcuson, 35, is a U.S. Geological Survey engineer.

The Santa Cruz Lawn Bowling Club is celebrating its 60th anniversary next year, but the two players say times have changed since the club first opened its doors. May points out that players no longer have to abide by traditional lawn bowling etiquette to wear all white to games. Today, players come with more flair, donning colorful matching shirts to tournaments rather than the more formal look.

“It’s a lot of fun for all people,” he said. “We just want to try and get people to come out and give it a try. We did and got hooked!”

Friends prior to joining the club, Marcuson and May started playing mostly on a whim after learning that the City of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation department offered three lawn bowling lessons for $20. “We saw it in the parks & rec magazine and it was a really good deal,” said Marcuson.

In 2019, the two started playing in the occasional tournament, starting with one in San Jose that one of the other members of the lawn bowls club signed them up for.

“He basically just said, ‘Hey, you guys are pretty good’ and went ahead and signed us up,” said Marcuson. “We were probably mediocre at that one, but it was fun.”

Marcuson and May don’t claim to have mastered the game just yet, but at least two days a week of two-hour practice over six years has done them favors. In a game where the best players can have bad days without warning while inexperienced players can have great games, the two have noticed that they now have more good days than bad ones.

While they don’t expect to win the world championships in January, the pair are still thrilled to be representing the U.S. in Hopton-on-Sea, a small town on England’s east coast. “Most of the Americans that have gone in the past few years have been knocked out in their first game,” said Marcuson. “It’s going to be a great experience, and hopefully the beginning of playing a lot better.”

Canadian-born Marcuson describes lawn bowling as a mix between curling and bocce ball. Essentially the game involves players or teams of up to four players who take turns rolling unevenly weighted balls — called “bowls” — in an attempt to get them as close to a smaller ball called a “jack” as possible. Who rolls the jack first is usually determined by a coin toss. The bowls curve significantly as they roll, so players never roll directly at the jack.

Lawn bowler Rachel Marcuson.
Lawn bowler Rachel Marcuson. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The game is played on a large square or rectangular “green” made either of precisely maintained grass or artificial turf. Points are determined by how many of a team’s bowls end up closer to the jack than the closest bowl rolled by the other team. In other words, if after all bowls are rolled, your team has three bowls closer to the jack than the bowl closest to the jack rolled by the other team, your team gets three points and the other team gets zero.

Points are tallied after all of the bowls have been rolled — referred to as an “end.” Marcuson and May usually play 12 ends.

Biased balls, called bowls, sitting on the green.

How to Play Lawn Bowling

For a more in-depth explanation of the game and its rules, head over to the Santa Cruz Lawn Bowls Club website for the full rundown.

In lawn bowling, players roll unevenly weighted balls (called “bowls”) as close as possible to a smaller ball (called a “jack”). The goal is to get as many of your bowls closer to the jack than the closest bowl rolled by the other team. If it sounds like a simple game, that’s because it is — for the most part.

“There are some other nuances like how far the jack has to go, where you put your mat,” said Rachel Marcuson, adding that players begin to understand useful strategies once they start to play. For example, a player may roll their bowl so that it knocks the other team’s bowl away from the jack, or aim for a space between the bowls already sitting around the jack in order to position their team’s bowl closer than ones from the other team, thus cutting down on their points.

The team that scores gets to roll the jack first in the next end, said Marcuson, explaining that this can play into your team’s strategy. “Maybe you noticed the other team is really terrible at the short rolls, so you’ll roll the jack lightly.”

Sounds easy, right? Well, Marcuson and Jesse May invited me to give the game a shot, and just one try makes the hidden difficulty rather clear.

The jack, sitting about 90 feet away, makes it difficult to tell how hard or how soft one should roll their bowl. But once you think you’ve gauged the distance correctly, then comes the cartoonish curve of the bowl as it slows and gets closer to the jack. What looked to be on its way to a beautiful roll just about a foot away from the jack is now at least 5 feet to the left and by no means on line. That’s a typical occurrence for a first time bowler, as both Marcuson and May agree that the game is “easy to learn, but hard to master.”

— Max Chun

Lawn bowling in some form or another has been around since ancient or prehistoric times. Eventually, the game found its way around the world with versions recorded in Greece, Italy and finally England in the 13th century. National bowling associations began to be established in the late 1800s. Since then, the game has gained popularity, most notably in places like the United Kingdom and Australia.

“It’s a major sporting event,” May said of lawn bowling in the U.K. “The clubs are totally different with things like restaurants and bars. It’s a really social thing.”

The sport has a lower profile in the U.S. “It’s kind of like soccer,” May said. “The U.S. is just kind of behind and it’s super popular in a lot of other places.” Locally, the Santa Cruz Lawn Bowls Club has around 40 to 50 members.

It’s traditionally a game for middle-aged and older people, with Sports Medicine Australia — in a region where lawn bowling remains a popular game — pegging the average age of players to be at least 55.

With other games like pickleball gaining popularity among old and young alike, Marcuson and May want to thrust lawn bowling into that same category. Marcuson said the club is considering starting a league this spring to get more Santa Cruzans of all ages down to the green, and, it hopes, get the club some more members for low-stakes fun.

“You’d be hard pressed to find someone under 25 playing here — we are considered very young,” said Marcuson, estimating that she and May are the youngest of their club by about 30 years. “It’s easy to remember it as this stuffy thing for old people, which is not the case.”

Yet, Marcuson and May are concerned that the future of the bowling green behind Hotel Paradox at San Lorenzo Park could be in doubt as the city works toward a redesign of the park, its first since the 1980s. Marcuson said lawn bowlers are concerned that the redesign could involve getting rid of the green in favor of other recreational facilities, such as pickleball or tennis courts. If that happens, players would lose their only green in the county — the next-closest bowling green is in San Jose.

YouTube video

“I think there are proposals that include the green right now,” said Marcuson. “But it is underutilized, which is why we’re hoping to get a lot more people down here.”

Tony Elliot, director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Santa Cruz, said that the current concepts for the park’s redesign do include the bowling green and that “the expectation is that the lawn bowling green and facilities will remain in place through this redesign.”

Lawn bowler Jesse May.
Lawn bowler Jesse May. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

But he added that could change as community input progresses. The city is about a year into the planning process for the redesign and is continuing to gather information about what people want to see most in the park.

“We want to ask the question now to the broader community,” he said, adding that community members commonly say they would like to see habitat restoration along the San Lorenzo River and park safety improvements. “We hear a lot about tennis or pickleball,” Elliot said. “So what’s the desire of the community at this point?”

Last Monday, the city released its second online survey about the redesign. It will close Nov. 5, and a public meeting is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 11.

But before they worry about the future of the green, Marcuson and May have an international tournament to prioritize.

“If you’re not 100% focused, it’s hard to play well,” said May. “You really have to be present, in the moment, and not think about other things.”

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Max Chun is the general-assignment correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Max’s position has pulled him in many different directions, seeing him cover development, COVID, the opioid crisis, labor, courts...