This is one of 40 stories from my book
Sports the Olympics Forgot
which is available here
In places where space is at a premium people have to improvise in order to play their favourite sports. Such was the case with Amos Toms in St Helier, Jersey, in the 1950s. He was a devoted putting fan who didn’t have the finances to join a golf club and wanted to be able to practice his favourite pastime somewhere undercover during the days of winter.
One day his son, Albert, was telling him about the newly opened ten-pin bowling alley in the town and how straight the balls rolled along the lanes. Immediately, Amos thought how easily he could practice his putting stroke at the alley if the ball always ran true.
The only problem now was what to aim at – after all the owner of the bowling alley wouldn’t want Amos drilling holes in his shiny wood. He then thought of the pub game devil-amongst-the-tailors where a ball was used to knock down small wooden pins. These pins were the height of a small candle. The next day Amos arrived at the bowling alley with his putter, four golf balls, and a packet of ten candles.
The owner of the Bowling Alley wasn’t too thrilled when he first saw Amos as he thought that some bizarre religious ritual was about to take place. Only after Amos promised not to light the candles and to use a large blanket to stop the golf balls going towards the pin mechanism did he allow any putting to take place.
Amos set up the candles 15 yards down the alley and then tried to knock them down using as few balls as possible. After two hours he had managed to reduce the number of balls required to five but he was a long way from getting a strike.
Amos was still playing when the first few bowling customers came into the alley. Fascinated by what they saw, some people told Amos they’d meet him the following day with all the equipment and see what the game was all about.
Gradually more people started playing the game and the alley owner had to limit games to one hour. Visitors from England and France took the game back to their respective countries and the popularity grew to such an extent that the first international PUBAL (PUtting in a Bowling ALley) competition took place in St Helier in 1960 for the Amos Toms cup. Putters from 13 countries took part. In that first competition candles were still used and people couldn’t replace them during a game, so if your candles were damaged by overzealous play then your scoring would suffer as a result. Only PUBAL singles was played in the first three contests in St Helier but then a rule change allowed people to replace their wax candles with wooden ones. This allowed contestants to hit harder shots in the hope that the wooden candles would hit each other just like in ten-pin bowling.
This rule change also allowed more than one person to play in a lane; this game called PUBAL doubles has two sets of wooden candles, one red and the other blue, which are set up in the lane and the players have to knock down all their candles before their opponent knocks down all their candles. Eventually in 1970 the quadruple PUBAL was tried and found to be a success as it allowed team tactics to come into the game.
The best thing about PUBAL tournaments is that men and women, young and old can compete on an equal footing – accuracy is the most important skill rather than strength. As if to illustrate this, the most successful player in St Helier PUBAL history is Belinda Norrish who has won the Amos Toms Memorial Cup eight times in her thirty year career. She has only ever had one strike – knocking down all ten candles at once – in her tournament history but she regular uses only three balls to knock them all down. Belinda has three PUBAL doubles titles to her name and has also partnered her sister, Gwendoline, to four PUBAL quadruples.
The St Helier tournament regularly attracts three thousand entrants from sixty countries who come through regional qualifying rounds to make the main event of the PUBAL calendar. The tournament takes place for the month of November in the same bowling alley where Amos Toms played the first ever game.