Angel Gomez was 7 the first time he saw people lawn bowling. He thought it looked fun. And he thought something else.
“Everybody who was playing seemed really old,” he said.
That made him doubt children could take part at the Coronado Lawn Bowling Club. His family lived nearby, and on their way to Spreckels Park and to school, they often walked by the green at 7th Street and A Avenue, which has been there since 1935.
One day a sign went up at the club: “Free lessons.” The Gomezes went in.
Angel discovered that yes, it was fun. And yes, the other players were quite a bit older. But his feeling about the first part outweighed the truth about the second. He kept playing.
Ten years later and now a high school senior, Gomez remains a rarity in this neatly manicured niche sport, because of his age. Not many who play bowls are Latino, either. And there’s something else: He’s good.
Next month he’s headed to a tournament in Northern Ireland, the only American youth sent to the international competition by Bowls USA, the governing body of the sport in this country.
He’ll be there with juniors (under the age of 25) from Australia, Hong Kong, England, Hungary, Canada, Israel and elsewhere.
“Fundamentally, this is a genteel sport and Angel has two qualities that make him stand out, regardless of his age,” said Bill Hiscock, a Hall of Fame Coronado bowler who still competes at age 97. “He’s a good winner, and he’s a good loser, too. But he doesn’t lose much.”
Gomez attends Coronado High. With help from Berie Grobe, president of the Coronado club, he’s been able to get physical education credit for participating in the sport. He sometimes introduces classmates to it, he said, but they don’t usually come back. They find bowls too slow.
“You have to be patient to be any good at it,” he said.
He likens it to chess in terms of strategy, how you have to think ahead. How the move you make depends on what your opponent just did. And, like chess, the matches can be long — about three hours.
It’s simple enough in its basics. A small white ball called the jack sits at one end of the rink. Players stand at the other end and roll their “bowls” — hard resin balls that are slightly flat and weighted on one side — toward the jack. Closest to the jack wins points.
Because the bowls are weighted, they curve. That’s where the skill comes in, delivering them with the right amount of power and turn to stop close to the jack, or to knock an opponent’s bowl out of the way.
Gomez got serious about bowls during the pandemic when there wasn’t much else to do, he said. His father, Javier Gomez, 52, is a strong player, too, and they began entering more tournaments around Southern California. Entering, and winning.
At a recent “all-star” competition between nine different clubs in the region, Coronado took first place with the Gomez pair on its team. The five-person squad went undefeated in the tournament.
Lawn bowling sometimes has an air of privilege around it, maybe because some of the most immaculate greens are in wealthy areas. George Washington had one at Mount Vernon. Walt Disney was a devotee. For a long time, players wore only white when they competed.
The Gomez family is not privileged. Javier grew up in Coronado, the son of Mexican immigrants, and works in maintenance at a church in town. His wife, Martina, is a caregiver. They have two other children, Javier Jr., 26, and Natalya, 22.
But they said the sport isn’t snooty, that people have greeted them with open arms wherever they’ve gone.
“They just want to know if you can play,” Javier Gomez said. “It’s never been a problem.”
When competitors from clubs in other cities noticed that Angel Gomez could play, word spread. It made its way to officials with Bowls USA, and pretty soon they got to wondering: What if we sent him to a tournament as a junior member of Team USA?
He was all in. He said he’s never traveled beyond California and Mexico. He’s long wanted to go to Australia, where lawn bowling is a big deal. The tournament in Northern Ireland felt to him like a step in that direction, into another realm.
He’ll be competing in singles and mixed pairs in the competition, which runs from Dec. 5 through 9. His parents are going with him. Friends at the club in Coronado are helping to cover the costs.
Gomez is the only U.S. player in the field. It’s also on his radar that Brisbane, which is scheduled to host the 2032 Summer Olympics, might add lawn bowling as a demonstration sport. He would be 27 then, with another 10 years of playing experience, so who knows?
That’s a distant dream, though. More immediate plans are for college, where he’d like to study biology and go into genetics.
And he’s hoping his contemporaries might follow him onto the green, in Coronado and elsewhere.
“I just wish more people my age knew how much fun it is,” he said.