Paul Gustke of Sarasota should know quite a bit about the United States Bowling Congress (and the former American Bowling Congress), because he's been a member for more than six decades, and he has participated in 55 ABC/USBC national championship tournaments, including the past 49 in a row.
The 81-year-old righthander has many good things to say about the USBC Open Championships, but he certainly has some concerns about the direction that the national governing body has taken the game for many years.
"I've been around long enough to realize that many changes aren't good," Gustke said Sunday. "I believe that USBC is shooting itself in the foot by changing the focus of what members expect of them. It's a sad commentary."
Gustke probably shares the sentiment that many members will have upon learning about USBC's recently announced decision to eliminate the 11-in-a-row awards and to make awards given for 300 games, 800 series and 900 series a once-in-a-lifetime offering. [To read the details and reasoning for the USBC decision with regard to adult awards, click here].
"Such (USBC) decisions are obviously aimed at saving a lot of money, and that's, of course, the driving force," Gustke said. "It leads to the question of what we are actually getting for our membership fees. It's disappointing because bowlers are sponsoring USBC whereas it's questionable how much USBC is actually doing for the bowlers."
Gustke continues to bowl only in USBC-certified competition, but he bowls in an area in which more than half of all leagues have been non-certified for many seasons.
"The USBC has, in essence, been taken over by the (Bowling Proprietors Association of America)," Gustke said. "Since they sold the ABC offices in Wisconsin, they moved the Hall of Fame out of St. Louis at great expense, and the USBC, along with BPAA, has spent a great deal of money developing the current complex in Arlington, Texas. And in order to pay for such things, they have made changes that are at the bowlers' expense."
Still going strong with 55 national tournament appearances
Gustke continued to add to an impressive national tournament longevity string when he made his 55th appearance in the USBC Open Championship Tournament in Reno in April. Although he retired to this area 20 years ago, he still joins a team from his native Illinois in annual trips to the nationals.
His first appearance came in Chicago in 1953, and he's competed in 49 consecutive tournaments since 1965. This year's performance included below-average series of 546 (singles), 546 (doubles) and 464 (team), but he's already looking forward to next year's tournament in Reno.
"I absolutely love the competition," said Gustke, one of only 46 players who has competed in 55 or more USBC championships. "There's been a lot of excitement in going to different cities to bowl over the years, and it's truly a spectacular event." [To read a USBC news release that mentions Gustke's 50th tournament appearance in 2008, click here].
Gustke's first national tournament appearance came in his hometown of Chicago in 1953 at the age of 21. During that tourney, he recalls bowling next to someone participating in his 49th Open Championships and admits that as a youngster, he didn't grasp the history of the event.
"Now, I realize just how big a deal and how important it is to be a participant in such a wonderful endeavor for all these years," he said. "I just feel blessed to be healthy enough to compete for so many years."
A standout bowler in college, Gustke was the first in his sport to be inducted into the DePaul University Athletic Hall of Fame. Then, after competing in his first Open Championships, he was hooked. Other than missing a few years while serving in the U.S. Navy and a few years due to family commitments, he hasn't missed a tournament since 1965.
The gritty competitor aims for further milestones and has no plans to retire his bowling equipment. He rolled his best singles series on the tournament lanes (638) in Baton Rouge in 2005, and other highs included a 666 in doubles at Indianapolis in 1974 and 652 in team event at Long Beach, Calif., in 1972. His high USBC tournament game came in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 2006, when he finished with a 286 after opening with 10 strikes in a row.
"I simply love the competition," he said. "I love the whole setting. I like the whole idea of the tournament. I'm just going to keep on bowling as long as I'm able. Getting to 70 tournaments would be wonderful, (an all-time record) 72 would be even better."
Few bowlers in his age category continue to maintain an average as high as Gustke's. In the past two league seasons at AMF Gulf Gate Lanes, his average has dipped to 186 and 183, but in the previous 10 seasons, he averaged between 192 and 198 on all but one season, that being a 189 in 2009-10.
"I'm feeling good, and I'm always happy when I'm able to start a new season," Gustke said. "But as you get older, you have to work harder to attain what came easier in years gone by, but I feel I'm doing as good as can be expected under the circumstances."
Longtime bowler cites tournament negatives
Despite his USBC Open longevity and his continued enthusiasm regarding the tournament, Gustke is disappointed by some recent developments.
"There's no doubt that bowlers from the eastern part of the country are forced to bear the brunt of excessive travel expenses," he said. "Since 2000, the tournament has been held in Reno six times, Albuquerque and Baton Rouge twice each, and Las Vegas, Billings, Corpus Christi and Knoxville once each, and only Knoxville can be considered as being an eastern event.
"Not only that, there have been other changes that I'd consider non-professional, such as hawking drinks during competition, not checking bowling balls prior to doubles and singles as an apparent money-saver, and the fact that women can compete in two national tournaments. In addition, I feel that recent official tournament programs are disappointing, with virtually all advertising and little else, and I feel that revealing the oil pattern is an advantage to only the best bowlers and unfair to the majority."
The longtime member summed up his overall attitude toward the national organization thusly: "Does USBC want bowling to be considered a sport? I don't think so. USBC has spent themselves into a hole, and we, the bowlers, have to sacrifice to bail them out."