Bowls was, and is, played by all social classes and ethnicities. It appealed to working men because it was cheap and easy to play and had few social pretensions. The Croatian community, which spawned champions like Ivan Kostanich and Nick Unkovich, was prominent in the game. From the late 20th century Māori players such as Millie Khan and her daughters Jan and Marina, and Raika Gregory have excelled.
Many players pick up the sport when they’re reaching or past middle age, having retired from playing more physically active games like rugby or netball. Yet it has always appealed to young people too. Starting with 20-year old Phil Skoglund in 1958, there have been many national champions in their 20s. Shannon McIlroy was in his teens when he won the national fours champions in 2006.
A genteel pursuit
In the early 1900s Wellington’s Thorndon Bowling Club admitted that it had not ‘as a general rule, specifically sought for distinction in match playing, members showing a disposition rather to forgather in pleasant social communion day by day on their own green.’1
Elite competitions and players
While the vast majority of players are social players, the minority of elite players are extremely competitive. New Zealand’s elite players have been among the world’s best. The biggest impetus to the international development of bowls was the men’s early inclusion in the Empire (later Commonwealth) Games. Jim Pirrett (1950) and Ian Dickison (1986) were Commonwealth men's singles gold medallists. Catherine Portas (1994) and Joanna Edwards (2014 and 2018) later won gold medals in women's singles events. New Zealand bowlers also won Commonwealth Games gold medals in men's pairs (1938, 1950, 1958 and 1962) and fours (1938 and 1974) and women's pairs (1990 and 2002).
At the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games Millie Khan won the women’s singles silver medal. But her achievement proved bitter-sweet. She played in the final unaware that earlier in the day her infant grandson had died in the venue’s car-park.
Though the Commonwealth Games are still important, the world championships, which were introduced in 1966 for men and in 1973 for women, have become the greater priority. New Zealand has successfully hosted three world championships, in 1973, 1988 and 2008, and enjoyed triumphs on the green. For instance, Bill O’Neill, Gordon Jolly, Ron Buchan and Norm Lash won the world fours in 1966. Elsie Wilkie won the women’s singles in 1973 and again in 1977, while Gary Lawson, Russell Meyer, Richard Girvan and Andrew Todd, won the fours world title at Christchurch, in 2008.
The professionalisation of New Zealand bowls began in the 1980s, but it has been difficult to sustain because of the country’s small size. The sport relies on government funding through Sport New Zealand and some leading players, such as Peter Belliss, moved overseas, especially to Australia which had greater resources. Finding the right selection balance for national squads has been controversial, with some criticising the process for favouring young athletic players over older ones with greater ability and experience.
At the peak of the sport’s popularity between the 1960s and 1980s there were more than 60,000 registered male bowlers alone. In 2012 the total for both male and female registered players was 44,000. As with other New Zealand sports, bowls has been affected by changing employment and recreational patterns, such as weekend work and expanded shopping hours.
With fewer people picking up the sport, many clubs have merged or closed. The sport has also suffered from being stereotyped as a pursuit for older people. Bowls New Zealand has tried to counter this image and the falling numbers by recruiting new talent in secondary schools and encouraging clubs to cater for casual players at twilight ‘crackerjack’ promotions.