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Grace Wilson bowls at the Calgary Lawn Bowling Club.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Mike O’Reilly first came across lawn bowling when the Calgary Lawn Bowling Club moved into his neighbourhood six years ago.

He and many of his friends were in search of a new activity. “We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be fun if we all got together and went out as couples and tried this?’”

About to retire from his oil and gas industry job, Mr. O’Reilly quickly embraced the game and has been president of Calgary Lawn for the past four years.

It’s a sport I could learn quickly, and I realized it takes a lifetime to master. It was a thrill to find an activity that is going to challenge me for many decades to come.

Mike O’Reilly, president of the Calgary Lawn Bowling Club
How to bowl

Lawn bowling is relatively simple to learn. The balls (also known as bowls) are shaped so their paths curve as they roll down the green. Players aim to have their bowls come closest to the jack, a small white ball. Aspects of the game are similar to bocce, but without the throwing, or curling, but without the sweeping. Instead, lawn bowling has a target that can move if it’s hit. It’s a team sport, with singles, pairs, triples and fours competitions.

Club membership fees vary but are generally affordable compared to golf and other sports. Most clubs provide bowls for beginners and recreational players. Some players eventually buy their own sets, which if purchased new start at about $500.

“The club provides all the equipment to begin with; all the coaching I could ever want is free of charge,” Mr. O’Reilly says. “It’s a sport I could learn quickly, and I realized it takes a lifetime to master. It was a thrill to find an activity that is going to challenge me for many decades to come.”

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Mike O'Reilly talks to a club member during a match.Todd Korol

The social network

After 40 years of golfing, O’Reilly didn’t pick up his clubs last year because he was busy with bowling.

“I spent a lot of my life trying to get good at golf. I got down to an eight handicap. But ultimately the cost of the sport, the time it takes to play, the dedication that’s required, just didn’t fit my lifestyle,” he says.

Lawn bowling has also brought him and his wife Kim closer together. While O’Reilly is an avid competitor and coach, his wife loves the community and teaching youth bowlers at Calgary Lawn.

The sport, by its nature, is a social event, says Anna Mees, chief executive officer of Bowls Canada.

She says about 95 per cent of bowlers are interested in recreational bowling rather than serious competition. Many clubs have facilities with kitchens and liquor licenses and offer fun-oriented tournaments and weekend events.

In 2019, there were 13,889 lawn bowlers in Bowls Canada registered clubs. Ms. Mees says the sport was in decline, but membership is increasing in places like B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia.

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Cory Mack gathers lawn bowling balls at the Calgary Lawn Bowling Club.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Never too young to bowl

There are still some stereotypes about the game, Ms. Mees says.

“I talk to people in their 70s who say they’re not old enough to lawn bowl and yet when they try it, they say, ‘I wish I had started when I was 20.’”

Bowls Canada is also working to dispel the image of quiet players dressed in white.

“White just doesn’t convey modern dynamic fun,” Ms. Mees says.

Most Canadian bowlers are over 45, according to Bowls Canada demographics. Ms. Mees says Canada and the U.S. skew to older bowlers, but the weighting isn’t so marked in countries like Australia and New Zealand, which have considerably larger numbers of bowlers.

Many clubs have members as young as eight or nine years old. Ms. Mees says one of the advantages of the sport is that it’s multigenerational.

“It’s a sport you can play with your grandkids. You can have three or four generations playing together. It’s not something you see in other sports – all the generations can play together competitively on equal footing.”

Don Caswell, vice-president of Bowls Canada and treasurer of the Windsor Lawn Bowling Club, took up the sport long before retirement after blowing out his Achilles tendon.

While basketball was off the table, the physical demands of lawn bowling were still within reach.

“Retired athletes who can’t play the sport they used to find they can play bowls,” Mr. Caswell says.

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Tim Francis lines up his shot.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Lawn bowling offers low-impact physical activity: walking back and forth the length of the green several times throughout a game and the deep lunging delivery of the bowls.

For those with mobility issues, such as bad backs and wonky knees, there are various physical aids, including bowl lifters that cut down on stooping and arms or pushers for bowl delivery without the deep knee bend.

A more inclusive game

When he was growing up in Tillsonburg, Ont., Mr. Caswell, now 70, says there was a lawn bowling club next door. Many small Ontario towns had their own clubs and, going back decades, some employers built bowling greens for their employees.

Clubs have changed, he says. While it’s considered a quintessential British sport, there is less emphasis on players with English or Scottish heritage today – and the sport is more inclusive.

The Windsor club has several LGBTQ players who find it a safe and welcoming place, he says. And there are also members of the mentally disabled and deaf communities playing at the club. Members range in age from nine to 93.

Ms. Mees says bowling can be considered a strategic piece of a healthy retirement.

“The physical aspect is obvious, but there are hidden aspects people don’t think of. Being out in fresh air contributes to sleep. If we think about the cognitive benefits this sport provides in terms of strategy and tactics, it’s way more fun than Sudoku.”

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