The Sporting Life

Seattle’s Lawn Bowlers Aren’t Going Down without a Fight

A story of passion, land disputes, and finely mowed grass.

By Sydney Parker April 17, 2017 Published in the May 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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The Jefferson Park Lawn Bowling Club (pictured here in 1969) has hit the greens since the 1940s and faces a debate about its turf in 2017.

For 75 years, the Jefferson Park Lawn Bowling Club has gathered in Beacon Hill on two exquisite greens overlooking Elliott Bay. Members go for the company and friendly competition. But recently they united for a different reason: a strongly worded petition.

“We, the undersigned, oppose this blatant land grab,” exclaimed an online plea signed by 963 people. “We demand Seattle Parks and Recreation leave the history and heritage of Jefferson Park Lawn Bowling Club alone.”

The usurpers? An after-school program for Beacon Hill’s youth.

The First Tee of Greater Seattle, which teaches life skills to kids via golf, operates out of two temporary trailers and needs an upgrade. “A youth clubhouse would be a safe place for young people to go after school,” says First Tee executive director Heidi Wills, “a place where they could have access to a computer lab to do homework.”

In March, Seattle Parks released a request for proposals for a junior golf clubhouse, listing the bowlers’ clubhouse as a potential site and drawing not only their ire but their firm decree. 

The episode also raised an inevitable question. What the heck is lawn bowling?

On a recent, bright Sunday afternoon at the park, bowler Rodger Green, a retired shipbuilder, put it this way: “Bocce ball is like checkers, and lawn bowling is like chess.” Basically you roll your bowls—four small bowling ball–like spheres—as close to the jack (a little white ball) as possible. JPLBC has produced 28 national champions, and six members have competed internationally. 

So what does an affable group of talented men and women have against kids golfing and doing their homework?

“We have been great neighbors with golf,” says JPLBC president Nita Chambers. But the city’s request for proposals “states that the contract will go to one sole organization. It’s not a structure that works for us because we want to be true partners.” Chambers also fears that cutting holes and playing golf would destroy the bowling greens. 

Despite the uproar, Paul Wilkinson, a manager for the parks department says there’s no “vision of lawn bowling being displaced in any way.” 

The winning bid will be announced in July and then voted on by city council. Until then, both parties will try to maintain—sorry—lawn and order.

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