Savvy veteran Walter Ray Williams Jr. held off local fan favorite Jeff Lizzi in the title match of the 2001 PBA National Championship yesterday at Southwyck Lanes.
Williams's 258-204 victory over Lizzi ended the Sandusky native's spirited climb up the five-man stepladder finals, urged on by a boisterous and biased crowd of about 500. Before he squared off with the legendary Williams, Lizzi won two matches - including an unprecedented, dramatic rolloff victory over Tommy Delutz Jr.
“I knew I had to face a lot of fans out there cheering for Jeff,” Williams said. “If they would've been booing me when I stepped to the approach it would have bothered me. It's nice that they didn't do that kind of thing. It's really nice that they are so enthusiastic about their home guy.”
The victory was Williams's 33rd career win and third major. He now needs just the Tournament of Champions trophy to complete bowling's triple crown.
The key in all four of yesterday's games was having success on the tricky right lane. Williams was the only pro to consistently strike on the right lane, which required a direct line and very little hook.
“I knew going in that the right lane would be the key,” he said. “The guys were hitting the left lane really well. The right lane seemed to have a little hang on it. You had to play it conservatively. Fortunately I got the ball just in the right spot and the ball just hit the pocket.”
The conditions on the right lane and inopportune TV timeouts helped rub out Lizzi's bid to win the second title of his career. Lizzi left three open frames in his three matches. Two of those splits were left immediately after action resumed following a commercial break. Lizzi did convert a split on television last week at the Orleans Classic, where he finished second.
“Last year I had trouble with the commercial breaks. When we'd come back from a commercial I was too aggressive,” Lizzi said. “Now I just try to relax and just make a good shot.
“Maybe I should just try throwing it overhand,” he joked.
Walter Ray Williams Jr. was the only PBA bowler at Southwyck Lanes yesterday able to throw strikes consistently on the stubborn right lane.
Lizzi opened his first match against Dave Arnold with a split, but recovered to knock off the fourth seed 224-203. Arnold, who finished second at the 1999 National Championship, had beaten Chris Hayden 235-214 in the first match.
Lizzi's win over Arnold got the fans excited, but Lizzi's sudden-death win over Delutz whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Lizzi led 123-109 after the fifth frame, but left a five-pin split following a TV break.
The 36-year-old battled back with four straight strikes as the home crowd thrilled to his antics, which included crossing himself after one particularly doubtful strike.
“Words can't describe how much adrenaline I had going through my body,” Lizzi said.
After making a spare in the final frame to tie Delutz at 239, the crowd was treated to the first sudden-death rolloff in the history of the tournament in Toledo.
Both pros bowled strikes on the right lane. Then both struck on the left lane. But on his third ball of sudden death on the right lane, Delutz left the 10-pin. Lizzi capitalized with a solid strike to advance to the finals.
“I didn't lose, I got beat,” said a humble Delutz. “The left lane was pretty sweet. But the right lane was very, very tricky.”
Delutz did acknowledge that the biased crowd had an impact on his game.
“The Toledo fans are very knowledgeable. It's a great bowling town,” said the native of Flushing, N.Y. “They were cheering for Jeff, but they weren't cheering against someone.”
The pro-Lizzi audience also made an impact on Williams, but the 22-year pro showed why he holds the PBA record for most television appearances at 125.
“They were very polite about it,” Williams said. “Fortunately it wasn't a rough crowd. The players really respect the fans when they're well intentioned and are supporting their guy like that.”
Symbolic of the Glass City, Walter Ray Williams Jr. hoists the PBA National Championship trophy. It is his third major title.
The 41-year-old from Ocala, Fla., did hear a few shouts of his nickname -“Deadeye.” Williams earned that moniker when he won six world championships in horseshoe pitching.
But the veteran did say he had his doubts as he watched Lizzi roll into the finals.
“The guy who has just won the match before you has a couple of advantages,” Williams said. “He's got that confidence and emotion going for him.”
But the five-time PBA player of the year wasted little time in putting away Lizzi. He rolled strikes in five of the first six frames, then shut the door after Lizzi left a split in the sixth frame.
Williams rolled three more strikes for a 258 game.
“I go out to win every single tournament,” Williams said. “It doesn't always work out, but in the long run it seems to even out for me.”
Of the 31 times Williams has gone into the finals as the leader, he has won 12 times.
While Williams has 33 titles, the four other finalists had just four between them. Williams is just one career win behind Mark Roth for second on the all-time career win list. Earl Anthony leads with 41 career championships.
Williams took home $25,000 for winning the title, solidifying his place as the career leading money winner on the tour ($2,546,800).
Lizzi, who earned $13,000, said he believes he is on the biggest roll of his career.
“I have so much confidence going into next week ,” he said. “If I keep making shows and bowling for the title and knocking on the door, it's going to happen.”
One thing Lizzi will be lacking this week in Latham, N.Y. is the overwhelming support from the fans who helped Lizzi move from 49th to third over the course of the tournament
“The fans gave me so much of a boost this week,” he said.