TAMPA — Darin Hays fondly recalls the first time he bowled.
“I was 4 years old and remember rolling the ball between my legs,” the 51-year-old Charlotte, N.C., native said. “My father was in a bowling league, and I often joined him to watch and toss a few balls.”
Growing up, Hays’ passion and skills for bowling grew. At 20, he bowled his first 300 game, the first of 46 perfect scores. But his bowling career can be divided into two parts.
From 1992-2005, Hays competed nearly every weekend in regional tournaments throughout the Southeast. Hays, his wife, Linda, and their two daughters would pack up the car Fridays and drive to tournaments. On Saturdays, Hays bowled in qualifiers, which usually included eight to 12 games, and if he advanced to Sunday, a strong finish often earned him a cash prizs.
However, in 2005, while returning home on I-75 in Georgia, an oncoming driver lost control of her vehicle, crossed the median and hit the Hays family head-on. Linda suffered a broken arm, and one of the daughters was airlifted to a hospital, while Hays suffered broken bones in his right ankle.
The injury caused intense pain and forced Hays to quit bowling. In 2010, a surgeon successfully fused his ankle and alleviated the pain, but it hindered his mobility and flexibility.
Months later, Hays gradually returned to bowling and found he was pain-free in league play. In October, Hays returned to tournament competition and competing every weekend.
On April 13-15, Hays competed in a national tournament at Lane-Glo North in Port Richey. The three-day event attracted the nation’s top bowlers, and after two days, Hays was the top qualifier. On the final day, despite averaging more than 230 a game, Hays failed to advance, losing to PBA professional Ron Mohr.
Hays said bowling has changed over the years.
“(When I started bowling), 300 games were rare,” Hays said. “Like golf and other sports, the equipment has improved dramatically. Then, bowling balls were made exclusively out of rubber and plastic. Now, they are made of man-made material, such as urethane and particle material that grip the lane better.”
Hays also believes some lanes make it easier to achieve high scores, while PBA-sanctioned tournaments continue to use lanes with oil evenly spread, leading to lower scores. Otherwise, Hays adds, professionals would score a 300 almost every game.
“They used to coat the lanes with lacquer, which created the shine,” Hays said. “A topcoat of oil was then applied to keep the lacquer from burning up. Now, the lanes are made of a synthetic material that’s not as slippery. Plus, most neighborhood bowling centers put more oil in the middle of the lane. This allows balls thrown along the outside to grip the lane more and land in the pocket. The added oil in the middle forces the ball to skid more and stay in the pocket, causing more strikes. Bowlers used to need to hit a target an inch wide to get a strike. Now, the target is 6-8 inches wide, so there are more strikes.”
Although Hays was disappointed with the result in his national finish, he still savors competing against bowling’s best.
“I’ll never forget that Walter Ray Williams Jr, the best bowler in the country, came over and gave me a high-five,” Hays said. “It was a great experience to compete against the top athletes in the sport. It’s not about the money — it’s all about the competition and the fellowship.”
Correspondent Cliff Gill can be reached at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter@ReporterCliff.