Tim Criss is learning to play with the big boys of bowling.
The 26-year-old Bel Air native, who has been a pro bowler since age 17, left Baltimore in January to travel with the national touring professional bowlers. He hasn't struck instant fame or won a million dollars.
But Criss has performed consistently out on tour. In 26 tournaments he entered, he cashed in 12 of them. His best finish came in the $170,000 Johnny Petraglia Open in New Jersey.
Criss made the top 24, went 13-11 in match play and finished 19th, taking home $2,000.
He's earned about $15,000 so far on his first full year on tour, while maintaining an average of 213.
"There's really been only a couple weeks that I haven't been in contention," he said this week. "I realize the money I won isn't going to make me a living, but this is my first year and everyone says the first year is a learning experience."
And there's a lot to learn.
For one thing, the lane conditions the PBA uses are much more difficult than your average league conditions, said Criss.
In a typical league house, there is more oil in the center of the lane, less outside. And the oil only goes about 30 to 31 feet down the 60-foot lane.
But out on the national tour, Criss said, there is usually more oil on the outside boards, and less in the middle. Plus the oil is put much farther down the lane. It makes hitting the pocket consistently more difficult.
Criss said: "If you miss left, it's going to hook too early and you'll end up with a split. And if you miss right, sometimes it won't come back."
With the more difficult conditions, selecting the right bowling ball becomes much more important, Criss said he's learned.
A local bowler who grew up using the Hammer bowling balls, Criss always has favored the Hammer, which are made in Dundalk.
But out on tour, Criss said he's used many different balls and he's learned a lot about which balls to use on what kinds of conditions. He's also learned a lot about different drilling configurations, he said.
At one tournament alone this year, Criss used six different balls.
The touring pros, he said, get a good deal from the various manufacturers. They will give bowlers a comp slip that allows them to get a free ball from the pro-shop truck run by Larry Lichstein. They still have to pay for the drilling, though.
Criss has used the Teal Rhino Pro, the Beast, the Pro Hook, the Torq, the Nuke, the Turbo-X, Crush/R and the Ninja balls. He said he's been using the new Ninja balls a lot recently -- the Ninja Master and the Ninja Fury.
"Basically, with these resin balls, all can work great," Criss said.
Another lesson Criss learned was to go to his coach for help faster than he did his first eight months out on tour. Back in July, he hit a dry spell and didn't cash for five straight weeks. He said he was out of sync and his confidence was fading fast.
"The last thing you want to do out there is lose your confidence," he said.
Finally, Criss called Bernie Smith, the bowling guru from Fair Lanes Timonium who helped Criss put his game together in the year and a half before he went out on tour. Criss tried to talk through his problem on the phone, but it wasn't working.
So he had a friend on tour videotape him bowling and he sent the tape by Federal Express to Smith.
"He instantly saw a couple of flaws in my game. Within three or four days, I kind of got situated and I cashed the next two weeks," Criss said.
When he and his wife, Cherie, hit the road in October in their small motor home to bowl the four winter tour stops, Criss said he won't hesitate to send Smith another video.
"The first problem that arises, I'm going to send a tape home. I'm not going to wait five weeks," he said.
In the future, Criss said he would like to continue to bowl well on tour, to improve his game and one day make a televised finals. That's where the big money is. So far, though, he and his sponsor, Joe Bova of Fallston, are happy with the success he's had.
If you know an interesting bowler or have a good bowling story to tell, please call me at (410) 494-2944, or write to The Sun, 1300 Bellona Ave., Lutherville, 21093. You also can fax letters or scores to (410) 494-2916. Please enclose a name and phone number for verification.