Marty Letscher considers himself one of bowling's greatest aficionados. And with good reason.

The Bel Air resident has been bowling for more than 20 years and has followed through on a childhood dream tobecome a professional bowler. When he's not on tour or practicing, he spends his days running a pro shop for bowlers.

"My first job was in a pro shop when I was in high school and, since then, I was just fascinated by this game," he says.

"When I'm bowling, it's all I want to do," says Letscher, 34, a competitive national member of the Professional Bowlers Association since 1979.

This year, he has been on six tours, all in the past three months. Last Saturday, he returned from the American Bowling Congress Nationals in Toledo, Ohio. When he left, he stood in 21st place in the three-month tournament. And during the week of April 15-20, he was in WindsorLocks, Conn., to bowl in the Greater Hartford Open. He did not qualify to advance in that tournament.

His most successful tour to datewas March 24-30 at the PBA National Championships in Toledo, Ohio. There he advanced to the top one-fourth of the field and then advancedinto match play (top 24).

During match play, he was 13-10-1 against competition and advanced to the top five -- and a spot on nationaltelevision for the first time in his career.

Television cameras and sports news crews gathered for the event.

Did the press attention make for added pressure? "Oh, definitely, definitely, it was a newexperience," said Letscher.

"Once I got into bowling, I was fine," said Letscher, in a mild-mannered voice. "The hard part with me wasinterviewing and talking. Once I got into bowling the ball I got relaxed."

He also finished well in the Leisure Long Island Open March11-16, placing 21st, and he placed 39th at the Johnny Petraglia OpenMarch 4-9.

Letscher, a right-handed bowler, has bowled a 300 seven times in his career. In 56 games at the PBA Nationals, he bowled a 218.7 average.

He credits some of his recent success -- these recent tours were the first in which he came home with money instead of in the red -- to a surgical operation last June on the shoulder of hisbowling arm.

He was having chronic pain in the shoulder. Doctors repaired some frayed tendons and ligaments and scraped away some bonefor greater flexibility.

"He worked real hard to come back from that," said Mark Bowers, a five-year PBA member from Aberdeen who has been touring and bowling with Letscher for the past five years. He says he has seen Marty become more relaxed and calm in those five years.

A relaxed attitude helps a PBA tour member because trips can be tiring, requiring a lot of stamina. Letscher often does back-to-back tours.

He plans on bowling in regional competition this weekend and next weekend to stay sharp.

But is just staying sharp enough to be successful on the PBA tour?

Just because an amateur can bowl a 230 average on some local lanes, doesn't mean he can do it and be successful on the tour, says Don Vitek, bowling columnist for the suburban editions of The Baltimore Sun.

"You can go out on a tour and fall flat on your face," he said. "You have to know how to read the lanes."

Letscher agrees, noting, "It's the dressing on the lane, the amount of the oil and the pattern of the oil that's put out there that has a great effect on the characteristic of the lane," he said.

Letscher comes from a family where aunts, uncles, mothers and fathersbowled all the time. His parents would bring him along when they went to league games.

He rolled his first ball down a lane at the ageof 11. He came to Harford County in 1968 and says he bowled most of his league games at Harford Lanes in Aberdeen.

At Marty's Pro Shopin the Bel Air Bowl bowling alley, you can expect to find Letscher. He opened the shop in July 1986. But he'd rather be working on his bowling.

Letscher does not work with a coach. He says he teaches himself, learning from each competition.

When he first started bowling professionally 12 years ago, fellow PBA members told him to tour as much as possible.

He needed a 190 average for

more than two years and letters of recommendation before he could become a PBA member.

Bowlers are ranked from tour to tour according to the money they earn on each separate tour, of which there are 30 to 36 per year.

Bowlers can often do very well on one tour, and not quite so hot onanother, says Letscher.

Letscher's goal is to win a national championship.

"I hope I get it before I have to win the senior tour," he says jokingly.

He says he loves the competition and considers himself a consummate student of bowling, even though he has been at the sport for more than 30 years.

He gives prospective bowlers the advice that he lives by: "Practice as much as you can, but nothing is like bowling to competition. Learn every time you go out. . . . Always try to learn. If you're not bowling well, don't just get up and throw the ball down the lane."

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