David Whitley gets ready to roll in Sydney


I step out through the glass door with a beer in hand, ready to go old folk-spotting. After all, that’s what bowling’s about isn’t it? A nice way for retirees to get some exercise in their gleaming whites. It’s fair to say that bowling (the outdoor on a green type, rather than the ten pin version) doesn’t really have the sexiest of reputations across most of the world. But in Australia, this isn’t the case. In the last ten years, the sport has undergone a remarkable resurgence and become cool amongst hip young trendsetters.



This is apparent as I step outside at the Paddington Bowling Club in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. There’s no wrinkly pageant here. Straddling either side of the greens is an army of twenty and thirtysomethings, most of whom look like they’d be more at home in a nightclub or sleek bar than on the hallowed turf. Actually, there’s a strong possibility that they may have stumbled out of some such venue. Most have sunglasses on, many are nursing a hair-of-the-dog drink, and just about all are sloping around in lazy weekend wear.


There are no prim white uniforms and bowling shoes - just a sea of shorts, fashionably crumpled shirts and bare feet. The Barefoot Bowling trend started as a way of protecting the greens from unsuitable boots and shoes, but caught on. Many now shed the shoes as a matter of course, not even questioning why others do it and just finding it a cool way of doing things.


It’s a scene that can be found replicated on the weekends across Australia. Not all bowling clubs have cast aside the old stuffiness – indeed many are still just as traditional as they have always been – but a fair few have cottoned on to what the younger generation want. For the bowling clubs, it’s not really about introducing the sport to new players, it’s about making money behind the bar. Those in trendy urban areas, in particular, cottoned on quickly. Turn the game into a social occasion, and more people will not only come, but they will spend money on drinks. They’ll also bring friends to a spot they may never have considered visiting before.


As a consequence, the Paddington (or Paddo) Bowling Club is thriving. The same applies to other clubs in the more sought-after areas of Australia’s big cities. It’s far more about the social aspect than the sport itself, but due to Australia’s climate and largely fine, warm weather, bowling has become an outdoor equivalent to pool or darts.


The transition to hipness came about in the late 1990s and the early noughties. The St Kilda Bowling Club in Melbourne is generally regarded as being the place where things started turning around. A dwindling membership at one of Australia’s oldest clubs led management to try and attract a younger audience. It worked, and then the TV cameras came along. 


The Secret Life of Us was one of Australia’s hippest – and most watched – TV programmes of the early 21stcentury. Set in St Kilda, it was a slick and occasionally gritty drama about twenty and thirtysomethings in Melbourne and their love lives. It was shown in the UK on Channel Four, and made stars of numerous members of the cast. When the characters weren’t sleeping with each other, bitching about their bosses and having personal crises, they could often be found on the bowling green. The St Kilda Bowling Club was the setting, and became a regular filming location. And if the coolest characters on TV are bowling, then others will follow in real life.


This was boosted in 2002 by the release of Crackerjack. It was a film about a typical Aussie bludger who decided to join a lawn bowls club in order to get a free parking space. It’s not the greatest comedy ever made, but it was the highest-grossing Australian film of the year, and clearly captured the imagination. The Secret Life of Us brought in the cool kids, and Crackerjack took a slice of the mainstream. Suddenly, people were venturing into long-forgotten bowling clubs, the shoes were coming off and the beers were flowing.


There was a high chance of this being a passing fad, and indeed the buzz has died down a little, but the bowling clubs prepared to cater for the younger market are still thriving. They’ve accepted that the game can’t be taken too seriously, and that it’s almost secondary to the socialising. And, as a result, the greens are heaving every time the sun comes out on a weekend. Part of the joy of bowling is that it’s relatively simple to understand, even for the complete beginner. I have the rules explained to me by Paul, an ex-pat ad salesman who lives in Bondi. “Essentially, you throw down the white ball, or jack, and whoever gets their ball nearest to it wins.”


Each player gets four bowls, although if playing as pairs, this can go up to four per player and a crowded green of 16 in total. Each goes in turn, trying to get as many bowls as possible near to the jack. If - for example - Player A has three bowls closer to the jack than the nearest of Player B’s bowls, he scores three points. It’s very simple to get the basics of, but hard to master. There’s also a certain amount of strategy involved. The bowls are not perfect spheres, and they’re weighted at one side. Try and roll one dead straight, therefore and it will tail off to one side. 


“The trick is to use that curve,” says Paul. “Aim slightly to the side, and use the natural arc to make the bowl travel around the others.” It soon becomes clear that it’s not about getting every bowl as close to the jack as possible. Some are left short, blocking the path. Others are sent further back in case the jack is struck in that direction at any point. Others are used as piledrivers to clear any irritants out of the way. As the game progresses, it becomes more engrossing. Paul and I try and play to each other’s weaknesses when we take it in turns to throw down the jack. He’s stronger when it goes a long way; I have more control when it’s left short. 


Paul isn’t a regular player – and many fit into this category. While some will make a regular thing of it – like a round of golf – others will just drop by when a group decides to get together and do something over the weekend. In practice, this means that nobody gets particularly good, and most games are fairly evenly matched due to similar levels of hopelessness. With our game meandering to a close, Paul manages to knock his own bowl – which had been closest to the jack – away into the gutter at the back. “Ah nuts,” he says lackadaisically, taking another sip of beer. It’s a moment that sums the barefoot bowling phenomenon up. Nobody really cares who wins, although there can be some gentle mickey-taking and gloating. It’s just something fun, and relatively wholesome, to do in the sunshine.