Ginger Harris and her husband were taking in the sights of Palo Alto’s Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden when something caught their eye over the fence. People at the adjacent property were playing bocce — or were they? This, a patron explained to Harris and her husband, was lawn bowling, and they should give it a try. Their first dalliance with the sport quickly grew into a lifelong love affair. Some 20 years later, Harris is still an avid member of the 85-year-old Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club.
Just off the main, bustling artery of Embarcadero Road, the club sits on the city’s two-acre Lawn Bowling Green Park. A project in the early 1930s of the Civil Works Administration, the park includes eight rinks and a clubhouse on the site of a former hospital. (Glenn Stewart, a longtime club member who died recently, had the claim to fame of being born at that hospital in 1925. “I’m bowling here, but I was also born here,” he liked to tell people.)
Virginia “Ginny” Arnott “was the driving force behind the creation of the club” and its first president, according to a history compiled by club member Peter Danner. Her zeal for creating the club was inspired by playing the game at the San Francisco home of none other than John McLaren, the superintendent of Golden Gate Park. Today, the Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club boasts more than 130 members. It tends to attract the retiree crowd and people who have tired of other sports, since it is the perfect new activity for former tennis and golf players who wore out their joints in more dynamic physical pursuits. But the club includes members in their 30s, too, and is working to make the game more accessible to people who also have to work, Harris says.
Harris had “tried every sport there was,” she says, but she didn’t like things coming at her, so she and lawn bowling “just clicked.” It’s solid exercise without being high-impact. The object of the game is to roll bowls (not balls, since they are not perfectly round) and get as close as possible to a small white ball, known as the jack, that’s been thrown onto the green.
The challenge comes with figuring out how to master the curved path of the asymmetrical bowls and the different ways they travel depending on the green’s terrain. Every green is a little different, Harris says, and in Palo Alto it’s a natural grass terrain. “Depending on which way the grass is growing, it may do what you want it to do or it may do what it wants to do,” Harris says. Beginners needn’t worry: “Kristi Yamaguchi didn’t win a gold medal after two days on the ice rink,” she says. “It takes some time, practice and commitment to learning how to play it well.”
Harris certainly embodies that commitment and might bowl three or four times a week. Part of lawn bowling’s appeal is that it is a flexible sport, allowing people to play singles, doubles or triples. It’s a perfect social mixer for travelers, too, since you can bowl at other greens if you have a club membership that’s recognized where you’re traveling.
All of the clubs give free lessons and have bowling sets that newcomers can use to learn, though many who stick with the sport end up buying their own kit so they can learn the specific curved-path tendencies of those bowls. “Once it’s in your blood,” Harris says, “you don’t want to give it up.”