Happy Hooker

A young pro bowler finds hope to spare.

He was ten or eleven, somewhere in there. The senior tour had just rolled into the old Wheat Ridge Funplex, over on Kipling, and a few of the veterans who'd heard his story took him out to Fuddruckers for a burger. One was Bob Hart, the boy's hero. Couple of others. And that did it. "It was just a blast," Tyler Jensen remembers. "That's when I started thinking, this is what I want to do; this is the game I want to be involved with, any way I can." Of course, he was already involved. Any home-schooled fifth-grader who's lost his taste for baseball and soccer and thinks about nothing except getting over to the bowling center every day to roll eight or ten games is...involved. Obsessed, even. "He's always been so one-track," his mother says. "He's got unbelievable focus."

Armed with a nice fingertip hook, little Tyler won his first junior tournament at nine, and pretty soon he was costing his parents three hundred bucks a month. For bowling. Practice games. Everybody loved the kid at Paramount Lanes. Rocky Richards, who'd worked at the place since 1958, drilled a ball for him. "Taught him to bowl when he was four or five," Richards says. But three hundred a month? That was some serious money. So the boy's mother, Susan Jensen, who still operates her home-based beauty parlor and still carries a 200 average and is the person who really brought Tyler into the game, did the only thing she could. She signed up for a couple of coaching clinics, and once she became a full-fledged instructor, her son reaped the fringe benefit: free bowling. Any time he liked. As many lines as he wanted. By the time the boy was twelve, he was averaging 200 and tearing up the local junior leagues. Tyler Jensen. Wheat Ridge, Colorado. The world would hear from him.

At sixteen he started taking business courses at Red Rocks Community College. At seventeen he opened his own pro shop inside Holiday Lanes. At eighteen he finished well enough in regional events in Pueblo and Springfield, Illinois, to qualify for the PBA Tour. Whoa. The big time. That was 2002. He was one of the youngest players ever to make it, and a lot of the veteran guys were good to the big, beefy, open-faced kid with the glasses and the spiky hair. Del Ballard Jr. Chris Barnes. "They showed me around," Jensen says. "They treated me very well." He knew the biggest guns on tour, too. Prickly, explosive Pete Weber, who does that weird, semi-pornographic crotch-pointing thing every time he makes four or five strikes in a row on ESPN. And cool, impassive Walter Ray Williams Jr., who's got a record forty tour wins and 154 top-five finishes and a beautifully furnished motor home about a block long. But Tyler didn't really hang out with those guys. It was Barnes and Ballard and Paul Fleming who became friends. They're the ones who started showing him tricks and insider stuff about hand position and subtly changing the roll of your shots and getting behind the ball on the release, like all the top players do today.

That first year, Tyler put 44,000 miles on his old Chrysler and managed to break even on expenses. By the end of the second year, he had crisscrossed America to forty far-flung PBA events, and the best he'd done was one ninth-place finish, in Burlington, North Carolina. So he lost his tour card -- but not his dream.

"I'm working on a few things, trying to get real polished, real sharp," he says. "Then I'll give it another full try." Jensen's mother says he was probably too young to compete three years ago. For one thing, she remembers her son obsessing on equipment. "He'd have 25 or 30 different bowling balls in the trunk and back seat of his car," she recalls. Little matter that, at sixteen pounds apiece, that was like hauling a couple of interior linemen around the country with you and them never chipping in for gas. More important, young Tyler may have been unsure of his game. "But I think he has what it takes," Susan Jensen says. "He's a real go-getter. A workaholic. I think he'll get there."

In its heyday, in the '60s and '70s, the PBA Tour enjoyed regular TV coverage on ABC and support from America's fifty million recreational bowlers. But after 1980 the game fell on hard times, and the PBA's new owners, who bought the whole thing for $5 million in 2000, have struggled to rekindle public interest. Sponsorships have increased -- catch the Odor-Eaters Open? -- and prize money rose from $1.8 million five years ago to $5 million last season. But that's chump change compared to golf and tennis -- or even poker tournaments. Only eight PBA players earned more than $100,000 this year. And despite a renewed interest from the hipster crowd, the sport overall suffers from an image problem. Old. Dull. Sedentary. A new documentary about bowling, A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, portrays the 68-man tour as a lonely grind beset by alcoholism and divorce, as well as a hard place to make a living. In the movie, the wounding self-doubt of Jensen's friend and mentor Chris Barnes is on full display, and the last scene captures the stoic Williams, just hours after winning the 2003 PBA World Championship, chipping ice off the roof of his Winnebago in the parking lot.

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