In a quiet West Virginia field, Mark Wilt is flat on his stomach, up to his elbows in muck. He's lost his ball, not a Titleist or Top Flite, but a steel cannonball. He rolled it down Turkey Run Road, watched it veer from the center, thud over cracks in the tar, careen across some shoulder till, and end up below a bridge in a muddy stream.
Actually, that's what the ball is supposed to do, except for the off-road detour. "Now this is dedicated road bowling," laughs John Nelson, as Mr. Wilt fishes around unsuccessfully for his ball, or "bowl," as it's called, for about 10 minutes.
The scene is hardly unusual in one of America's newest and most obscure sports – Irish road bowling – where the errant cannonballs often end up in fields, rivers, and even cow patties. These are just a few of the hazards along rural lanes where the sport is played with passion and a strange kind of precision.
Though the sport remains the playground of a relatively few, it is gaining in popularity in the hills of central West Virginia, where residents of the appropriately named town of Ireland first brought it back a decade ago. This year, organizers are trying to bring the game to a new level by hosting the North American championships and – they hope – sending a West Virginian overseas to the All-Ireland games this fall for the first time.
"We want to play our way to Ireland," says David Powell, the West Virginia club's founder and an avid – albeit by his own admission average – road bowler. Mr. Powell fell in love with the game because of its simplicity, aesthetics, and tradition. "It's so easy to learn, and so hard to get good at," he says. "It's older than baseball or football – it dates back to the 1600s."
The needs in road bowling are few: a small steel cannonball, 28 ounces. Some chalk. A winding country road, preferably with a few hills, that hasn't been repaved in a while.
The rules are more like golf than bowling: Participants – either competing alone or in two- or four- person teams – try to get to the end of the course in the fewest number of bowls possible. Usually the course is one to two miles long. Any throwing style is legal, but most bowlers use a running start and an underhanded toss. A road spotter stands ahead to indicate the best path. A chalk mark is placed on the road where the bowl stops.
Good bowlers read the curves and ridges of the road, and get bowls of several hundred yards. Bad ones, as in indoor bowling, roll their balls into the gutter – in this case, brambles and brooks – after 10 or 20 feet.
While virtually unknown in the US, road bowling has been around in Ireland for centuries, especially in County Cork in the south and Armagh in the north. Each has a distinct style of play: The Cork bowlers tend to swing their arm around in a full circle before hurling the bowl, while the Amargh players run with their arm straight back and toss without a windup. On Sundays, whole towns will often turn out to watch.
A native of Ireland, W.Va., who now lives in the Washington D.C. area, Powell first learned of the sport from a TV clip and later looked for bowls during a trip to Ireland. He thought it would be perfect for his home state, rich in hills and country roads, and for the town of Ireland's annual Irish Spring Festival.
The sport may well have roots here, too. A museum curator in Ireland, in response to a query from Powell, wrote that it is "highly likely" that Union or Confederate troops of Irish origin played road bowling as a diversion during the Civil War.
Even Powell, however, was surprised how quickly the sport caught on in West Virginia. The state's calendar of weekend festivals – Gold Dollar Days, Buckwheat Festival, the Carp Festival – has perfect venues for holding tournaments. This year's Irish Spring Festival drew more than 200 bowlers.
Part of road bowling's popularity is rooted in its accessibility and conviviality. It's easy to pick up – and relaxed enough that this reporter joined a team without a single practice throw. Doing it well, of course, is another matter. My first bowl went off the road after 20 feet. I congratulated myself on not tossing it straight up or letting it go too early – common mistakes for rookies – and then proceeded to do just that several bowls later. Fortunately, I improved as we proceeded down the road, stopping periodically to wave cars by. My teammates seemed more interested in socializing and enjoying the crystalline day than setting any course records.
We passed weathered barns, cows, and a cornucopia of flowers, and the tournament – in which teams move along as soon as they bowl – at times seemed more like a family pickup game than an organized sport. Which is the way many players like it.
We hit the end of the 1.5-mile course in about an hour (36 bowls for my team, 25 for the winners) and headed to a nearby house for a barbecue. "Anyone who comes out and has never bowled before can learn a few general rules and play the game," says Shannon Gear, president of the West Virginia association. "But if you want to be competitive, you can."
A few West Virginia bowlers have warmed to the challenge. The "Quad S" team from Horseshoe Run plays six miles every weekend, and practiced for six weeks before showing up at the first tournament last year – and winning. The players all wear homemade orange jerseys.
"It's cheap exercise," says Guy Wayne Shaffer, a welder, who practices by throwing bowls in the parking lot at work. The Quad S men often play with their families: They once had a 2-year-old and a 92-year-old in the same game.
This year's North American Regional Championship (something of a misnomer, since the only participants are from Boston, New York, and West Virginia) will be played on the Turkey Run course. West Virginia will be represented by Travis Craig and Jerod Putnam, childhood friends from the town of Ireland. They'll compete in the Novice II category against more experienced native-Irish players from Boston and New York, but hope to make it to the international event overseas. "That's the goal this year," says Mr. Putnam, a logger who started bowling because it was fun, but now is driven by the "competition.
At this point, the sport is still carefree here: Tournaments cost nothing, state rankings are an unofficial list compiled by Powell, and there are no referees. Powell has started awarding trophies and cash prizes, but is wary of making everything too official. "It's almost like two games," he says. "One is intense, every shot is important. The other, everyone is out rolling, laughing, having fun. What we do is a little bit of both."