With a twinkle in his eye 13-year old Ben Pettit quips, “damn, I won’t double your score,” as at last a pin doesn’t fall.
Thursday is a quiet night at North City Tenpin in Porirua. There are no league matches scheduled which makes the surprised murmurings conspicuous. The kid actually missed. A nine ruins a run of five consecutive strikes. The opponent, two decades his senior, seeks solace. Your humble correspondent has never been so humbled.
Ben Pettit is the New Zealand Open Men’s Tenpin bowling champion and boasts a highest score of 279, a pin short of the perfect game. Prodigy versus piñata!
The Nationals were held in Manukau over Queen’s Birthday weekend. An annual event since 1971, qualifying involved a dozen games across singles, doubles and teams with totals taken from each event. In his 12 games Ben averaged 216 to qualify in third place.
The finals are contested for five hours over 15 straight games and head to head with every other competitor. The bowler with the highest combined pinfall is the winner.
In a field featuring seven former champions and the defending champion, Ben started poorly with a 151 against the top qualifier. He bounced back strongly averaging 232 in the next seven games to rise to second place.
As the oil on the lane wears out, the ball starts reacting differently. Bowlers have to adjust their line, delivery angle and speed to keep hitting strikes. This is the science behind the craft a simple layman doesn’t understand.
Absolute shocker! A score of 127 in game nine sees Ben tumble down the leaderboard. Medal prospects have become tenuous.
Ignoring a cyst on the right index finger and relying furthermore on his trusty 14-pound purple hammer (imported from the US for $750 as it was no longer made) Ben finds a second wind. In the last six games he bowled 1,402 to win the title by 65 pins.
“My goal was to get to the finals, but after qualifying I wanted to hold onto third place. To win was incredible,” Ben said.
“The older guys are really supportive. I look up to them and was surprised to do so well.”
North City Tenpin is a second home for Ben. In addition to playing and training 15 hours a week he’s employed by the club to do various jobs. His parents Paul and Paulette have been avid regulars for a two decades. Paul has a best score of 247 and Paulette 199. From an accounting and finance background they married in 1994 and Paulette stopped working when her first child, Will was born.
Will is a former national age group singles champion and New Zealand representative with a best score of 258. In 2019 (while Year 10) he was the youngest boy to receive sporting colours at Hutt International Boys’ High School, an honour typically reserved for rugby players, footballers and cricketers.
Ben started bowling when he was three and was competing nationally aged seven. He soon upstaged Will which was initially a source of conflict.
“Will didn’t like it when I started beating him, but now he’s my biggest supporter. I wouldn’t have gotten through Nationals without him. Will is a great player. He keeps me honest,” Ben said.
North City owner and coach Chris Haynes and stalwart Rob Pollock (father of international rugby referee Chris Pollock) are trusted mentors. Rob accomplished his first perfect 300 game, aged 74, on a social Sunday night league in front of the kids he coaches.
“Ben is an amazing talent and basically became too good for me to coach now. He’s a very nice boy with a great attitude and work ethic,” Rob said.
Australian Jason Belmonte is the best player in the world and is unusual in using the two-handed approach, a technique whereupon the throwing hand is in the bowling ball and the opposite hand is also placed on the ball during the shot.
Following earnest YouTube study Ben abandoned the conventional single-handed style and delivered 279 in December 2019.
“The advantage I get is more revolutions on the ball and more power though the body once I perfected the technique. The single handed delivery involves a bigger back swing and can damage the thumb, but you should do what feels comfortable.
“My favorite bowler is actually Packy Hanrahan from Kansas. He’s a two-hander like me and the way he plays is really exciting. I wrote to him on Instagram not expecting a reply but he got back to me and now we communicate a bit which is really cool. When I’m older I want to go to Wichita State University where Packy went to school.”
At Nationals Ben was just 18 pins off the all-time national finals record. During lockdown a pink rubber ball with a smile on it rolled down the hallway was a loyal companion.
He has been selected in the New Zealand Under-21 team to compete at the Australian National Teams Championships in July. Before that he will contest the Australian Under 14, 18 and 21 individual Nationals. He will be accompanied by Paul and Paulette carrying multiple bags of bowling balls, apparel and specially crafted shoes.
With the boys too young to drive and many tournaments away it takes a lot of time and resources. Travel expenses are soaring but with a kitten named Tenpin, through strikes and gutters, ups and down, Ben and Will Pettit are worth the commitment.
College Sport Media is dedicated to telling the story of successful young sportspeople in New Zealand