Laguna Beach Lawn Bowling Club rolls into its 90th year

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Laguna Beach Lawn Bowling Club member Susan Denton paused during play on a recent morning to remove her mask for a smile. The club, formed four years after the city was incorporated, is celebrating its 90th anniversary. Photo by Barbara McMurray

By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Independent

With 305 members and bragging rights as the world’s most beautiful location for its greens, the Laguna Beach Lawn Bowling Club is the largest in the United States. Its magnificent ocean view has drawn the world’s best players from Australia, Canada, England, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, and Scotland to play at the stunning Heisler Park location.

As the local club marks its 90th year, members are enthusiastically returning to the greens after the long 2020 pandemic lockdown, with face coverings required. Other modifications for play remain in place to minimize contact with equipment by players.

“Some municipal clubs are still on lockdown,” player Susan Denton said. “We currently have some folks driving down from Long Beach to play.”

The timing for a full return to hosting international tournaments is still in question, but past club president Curt Bartsch pointed out the effect of the sport on the local economy. “International lawn bowling clubs come here to play, and when they do, they’re also spending money in town – restaurants, beverage places, and hotels.”

This club was founded in 1931, four years after the City of Laguna Beach was incorporated. Land for the park was set aside in 1906 when the Laguna Cliffs subdivision was created by L.C. McKnight, Howard G. Heisler, and the Thumb brothers. At that time, lawn bowling was not in the plan, but in 1924, Heisler made good on a promise for a public park when he deeded his land to Orange County. Harlan S. Kittle, a champion Beverly Hills bowler who moved to Laguna Beach in 1927, envisioned lawn bowling by the sea; his lawn bowling activism resulted in the county deeding the property to the City of Laguna Beach. Kittle’s wish to purchase from the Jahraus family the lone house that stood across from the lawn bowling greens went unfulfilled. Club historian Linda Jahraus’s husband Jeff is the grandson of Joseph R. Jahraus, a club member and founder of the Laguna Beach Lumber Company.

Laguna Beach Lawn Bowling Club members provided the elbow grease to install the first eight-rink green where games began in November 1931. The club flourished in the 1950s when more bowling space was added and Laguna Beach could accommodate tournament play. The current clubhouse, erected in 1968, is a tidy, unostentatious gathering place for members in non-pandemic times.

The club’s greens committee oversees contracted greenskeepers who mow the grass three times a week. Club officers are quick to point out that the City of Laguna Beach does not pay for any of the club’s maintenance or upkeep at its prime facility; all is covered by membership dues.

A club celebration for members will be held this month, where longtime and new members who have fulfilled the requisite three lessons and paid their initiation fees will be welcomed.

The sport appeals to a broad range of players for a variety of reasons. It can be played by any age and gender and enjoyed throughout one’s dotage. Players as young as 13 play on Laguna’s greens. Although perhaps viewed here as a quaint pastime of the older set, in other parts of the world the best players are in their 30s and 40s and revered for their expertise, with tournaments broadcast on television.

At $200 a year for membership and a few initiation fees, getting started as a lawn bowler is a fairly inexpensive proposition, especially when compared to golf. No special equipment or gear is required, and players are encouraged to borrow rather than purchase a set of bowls until after they have played for a year so they can determine the size and weight that best suits their style of play. Lawn bowling is similar to curling in its objective. On the closely-clipped grass of the bowling green, each player uses a pair of bowls, nearly-round spheres with a weight bias, releasing them in a low, underhand toss to send them as close as possible toward the jack, a smaller white marker ball. The game’s history dates to at least the 13th century, with the oldest surviving venue that of Old Bowling Green in the United Kingdom. It was a demonstration sport in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

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