If Sunday’s final of the Tournament of Champions doesn’t draw better-than-usual ratings on ESPN, I don’t know what else they could do to showcase the sport.
The final four lineup that qualified Friday night at Red Rock Lanes in Las Vegas has something for everyone and it will start unfolding Sunday at 1 p.m. on ESPN, thankfully not against an NFL game.
Chris Barnes, almost unanimously acclaimed the best bowler on the tour (even though his titles total doesn’t quite support it) is the top seed. Michigan’s adopted son via Finland, Mika Koivuniemi of Hartland is third, and last year’s runnerup, Rhino Page (who lost the T of T title on an errant final shot), is fourth. Each of them has a compelling story line.
None of them can match the hype that will accompany the No. 2 seed — Kelly Kulick. The first woman ever to qualify for the Tournament of Champions field became the first woman ever to make the finals telecast.
And if you think Michigan native Tom Smallwood’s rags to riches story (soon to be chronicled by Sports Illustrated) was a publicity bonanza for the PBA, watch out for Ms. Kulick.
If we’re really stretching the point, we could almost claim her as a local. After all, she won her first title — the U.S. Open — at Sunnybrook Lanes in Sterling Heights in 2003. And she qualified for the Tournament of Champions — the first woman to do so — by winning the PBA Women’s World Championship at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park in September.
Just another in a string of famous firsts.
In 2006, she became the first woman ever to earn an exemption for the PBA Tour.
In 2007, she became the first pro bowler to be featured in a Spider-Man comic. Peter David, one of the Spidey chroniclers — and an accomplished bowler himself — wrote her into an issue after meeting her at a tournament. In addition to being rescued from a sticky situation and whisked through the air by Spiderman, she also gave she a cocky high school boys bowling team a lesson in "girl power."
Will girl power prevail on Sunday?
If it does, it will be against the odds. In the second match Sunday, Kulick, 32, will face the winner of the opening match between Page and Koivuniemi. Should she survive that, she’ll face Barnes.
She defeated Page twice during match play — once in the first round (225-211) and again in the final game Friday night (267-216) to ensure her spot on the show. But she lost to Koivuniemi in the second round (239-198) and to Barnes in the first round (247-238).
She started Friday night’s final match play round in sixth position after having been in the top four earlier.
“Actually being in a position where I had to work my way back into the top four took pressure off of me,” Kulick said. “I’ve been in this situation many times before and I would rather fight to get there because for me there’s less pressure than being on top.”
Although Kulick had her ups and downs Friday, her trip was a little smoother than Koivuniemi’s. He started the day 330 pins out of the last spot for the show and although he threw a lot of strikes, he was bedeviled with some bad leaves if he was just the tiniest bit off target.
After a 4-4 record in the first round of match play, he bounced back with two rounds of 6-2.
“Which was your most important match,” he was asked.
“All of them,” he replied. “I had to fight for every win and I needed every one of them.”
Especially the last one.
Facing Pete Weber, he had to survive an open in the third frame when he chopped the 3-pin off the 6 on his spare attempt. He bounced back with a couple of strikes, followed by a spare, but then had strikes in frames 7, 8 and 9. Weber caught fire and closed with five consecutive strikes, forcing Koivuniemi to strike or go home.
“I was trying to just concentrate on my own game, and I knew I need to strike to win the game, but I knew what was going on and I knew I could go past Rhino.”
Koivuniemi got the strike for a 234-228 victory over Weber to earn the third spot over Page. The biggest tumble was suffered by Tony Reyes, who shot only 159 against Barnes’ 236 and dropped all the way to sixth behind Weber.
“It feels great,” said eight-time titlist Koivuniemi, who earned the nickname “Major Mika” by winning two major titles — the U.S. Open for his first and then the USBC Masters. “This will be my first Tournament of Champions show. I’ve been waiting a long time for this. I’ve been dreaming of this ever since I was a young kid in Finland.”
In addition to the stern presence he provides with his normal scowl of concentration, Koivuniemi will add a little color to the show.
Last March, Koivuniemi lost a title match, and a bet, to tour roommate Chris Barnes. Barnes presented Koivuniemi a pair of garish golf slacks to wear the next time he made a TV show. Now, it’s time to pay up.
Koivuniemi, who once had to dye his hair blond after losing a bet with Barnes, said there will be another bet at stake on Sunday.
But, he said, “We need to do something different. Maybe we’ll let the fans decide.”
But regardless of the outcome and despite what the advertisements say, for Barnes, Koivuniemi, Page or Kulick, what happens in Vegas on Sunday most definitely won’t stay in Vegas.