A former Pro Bowlers Association member in the 1980s and 1990s, Edinburgh’s Fred Burton just laughs when asked if he is a better bowler now at age 63 than he was 20 years ago.
“No way,” he said firmly.
He also understands, though, that life at the bowling lanes has changed over the years because of advances in the bowling ball.
Joining a league for the first time at age 22, he never had thrown an 800 series in all his years of competition until he turned 60.
Who: Fred Burton
LEAGUE: Thursday Senior Men’s League at Columbus Bowling Center
HIGH SERIES THIS SEASON: 819
OVER THE YEARS: Burton has rolled three 800-plus series and 15 300 games.
Now, in the past three years, he has three, including the most recent one Feb. 21 in the Thursday Senior Men’s League at Columbus Bowling Center. It was his highest series ever, an 819.
Many bowlers would agree that an 800 series is a bigger achievement than a 300 game. Burton has rolled 15 300 games over the years, and he had a 298 game in his 819 series.
He had rolled 15 790 series games before finally breaking 800 with a 813 three years ago. His second such effort was an 816.
“A lot of the scores now are due to the way they dress the lanes and the equipment,” he said on Thursday between throws of Senior Men’s League play. “Bowling balls are stronger now, and they hit harder. It is easier carrying the corner pins, and for three games, if you are going to have a high series, you have to carry those corner pins.”
Like most adult male bowlers, Burton goes with a 15-pound ball instead of the once-traditional 16-pounder. “You don’t get as tired over three games,” he said. “That extra pound really makes a difference.”
The main result of the advancement in bowling ball power is that a player can “miss his mark” by a wider range and still end up with a strike. “Those old urethane and rubber balls, you had to be accurate,” he said.
Serious bowlers often now use a polyurethane ball that combines urethane, reactive resin and other materials.
Better technology or not, Burton is a machine with a bowling ball in his hand. On Thursday, he continually hit his mark perfectly, wiping out the pins. He finished with a 731 series and a 279 high game. Ho hum. He averages 219 in Thursday action.
It borders on amazing to watch his consistency. It also raises questions why Burton didn’t end up bowling on television for big money.
“If I ever had latched on to a sponsor, I might have made it,” he said. “But bowling on tour and trying to raise a family is hard to do.”
Advances in equipment have helped many of the seniors raise their averages, perhaps to the highest mark of their lives. But that doesn’t mean they can keep up with Burton, who retired as a hydraulic technician but still does heating and air conditioning work.
“I wish I could do it,” said Senior Men’s League Secretary Curt Morrison, who said the league prides itself on fun over competition.
Burton, who bowls very competitive leagues in Columbus and Franklin, said he was only bowling in the league because he was replacing another bowler who couldn’t compete this season.
“This is a no-pressure league,” Morrison said.
“It was started as recreational, and it has stayed that way. We’ve kept that attitude, but that isn’t to say that the guys don’t like to win.”
There’s no doubt, though, that all the bowlers are capable of putting up some high numbers.
“We have got a lot of guys in their 80s, and they are bowling really well,” Morrison said.
Burton said a lot of bowlers put themselves in a bad situation when it comes to shooting high numbers for a series. “They will sit down and figure out what they need,” he said. “I never do that.”
Steve Phillips, the day manager at Columbus Bowling Center and a member of the Senior League, still can put up big numbers, but he said he has a hard time keeping up with Burton.
“He’s got good hand-eye coordination,” Phillips said. “The numbers that he has been shooting are pretty awesome. And if you watch him, he doesn’t throw a big hook. He shows that you don’t have to do that. He’s accurate.”
Phillips, who is 58, said the equipment has allowed many bowlers to post big numbers.
“I quit for 10 to 12 years,” Phillips said.
“But I’m glad I came back. I’ve been bowling again for the last seven or eight years. You can be competitive here a lot longer than golf.”
Burton expects to remain competitive for a long time. “I like aggravating all these old guys,” he said. “I still love it, and I still love the people.”