Very few players in bowling put anything extra in what they give,” says Marshall Holman. “They throw the ball and sit down like robots. They and the tour need loosening up. I’m a very loose player.”
A cross between baseball’s Al Hrabosky and tennis’s John McEnroe, Holman, 25, has gleefully cast himself as enfant terrible in a sport whose athletes are more often known for their business-as-usual approach.
As soon as he lets his ball go, for instance, the 5’8″, 140-pound Holman gyrates in ways that bring a blush to some in the audience. Then he yells at the pins, glowers at the fans and leaps around a little for good measure, never mussing his short, curly permed hair. “If I bowl good,” he says, “I’ll let out every emotion. I’ll run around, stomp my foot, clench my fist.” He denies, however, that he has ever made obscene gestures at his hecklers, even though the Professional Bowlers’ Association has already fined him three times for offending fans this season. “My body English,” he advises, “is very abstract. I never gesture at the crowd, always the pins. I never curse the fans, either, but I have offered them my bowling equipment so I could sit back and watch awhile.”
Holman has been impressive athletically as well as histrionically. He’s a serious student of the sport who carries up to a dozen balls of varying surfaces and weight distributions on the road, so he can adjust to alley differences. This year he ranks No. 1 in points and is a close third in prize money behind veterans Mark Roth and Earl Anthony, with $84,360 after 31 of the season’s 34 tournaments.
Holman argues that “in terms of professional sports, bowlers are still very underpaid. There are about 90 regulars on the tour, and some of them are losing money. You need at least $15,000, and that’s playing it tight to the belt.” Attracting fans is the problem—and his self-assigned mission.
On the tour, his fan clubs, who sport names like “Holman’s Hammers,” call their hero “the Medford Meteor,” in deference to his hometown in Oregon. Others prefer “Mr. H. Dog,” the “H” standing for “hot.”
The son of a radio announcer who once did a show from the top of a flagpole, Holman took up bowling at 12 and was less than a natural—his average his first year was 99. But he improved enough to pass up college and join the pro tour at 20. “I went to the university of bowling,” he jokes. In 1976 he graduated to become the youngest winner ever of the tough Firestone Tournament of Champions in Akron.
From the start he was, as he likes to think of it, aggressive and spirited. “In the beginning,” he says, “probably 90 percent of the people were shocked and didn’t like my actions, and 10 percent were refreshed. Since then I’d say 65 percent are for me and 35 percent against.”
Not all his colleagues enjoy his tactics, either, but Roth, Holman’s frequent doubles partner, concedes, “A couple of things Marshall does look very bad, but he’s really a very, very funny guy. He’s good for bowling.”
Holman’s No. 1 fan, though, is his wife, Barbara, 29, a Medford girl who came from a family of avid bowlers and remembers that “Marshall Holman was my idol.” They met, appropriately, in a bowling alley and married last December. Barbara sometimes accompanies Holman on the tour, despite the fact that it brings her into contact with her husband’s vociferous, often abusive critics in the bleachers. “Sometimes I feel like turning around and screaming back at them,” she confesses. “But then I decide to be a lady. When the girls in the crowd talk about how neat it would be to go out with him, I just grind my teeth.”
Holman, while aspiring “to be the best bowler on two legs,” takes a more philosophical view of the fans. “People will always come with the idea of rooting against me,” he says. “In their subconscious, though, they want me to win, so they will have somebody to root against longer.”