It's been 19 years since the last standard PBA Tour singles event was held in the Buffalo area, but this new generation of pros seems headed for an enthusiastic welcome from the local bowling community and fans of the sport when the Geico Open comes to Thruway Lanes starting Wednesday.
All 500 tickets for the television finals Feb. 26 are sold, and entries for the three pro-am sessions may hit the target of 450.
"It shows the interest fans are showing for this event and their willingness to pay to be a part of it," said Mary Chase, manager at Thruway Lanes, which has been the site of all but one tour stop here since old Fairlanes in Depew was destroyed by fire in the early 1970s.
There are about 400 entries combined for the four pro-am sessions -- one Wednesday night and the three sessions next Saturday. That may pale when compared to the 1,500 amateur entries that were common here in the '70s and '80s, but there were more sanctioned bowlers then. Also Conbow, which owned Thruway, promoted the pro-ams by "encouraging" management of its other proprietors to sign up pro-am entrants.
"I think we're doing great," Chase said. "We're right about at par with the other [tour stops]. According to the PBA we're right where we belong."
Pro-am entrants will bowl three games, five frames each with a different pro.
Of course, Buffalo fans are loyal to Buffalo bowlers. There will be at least five from the area in the 64-bowler field that will begin the qualifying round Thursday -- Tom Baker and Joe Ciccone of Buffalo, Jack Jurek of Lackawanna, Brad Angelo of Lockport and Liz Johnson of Cheektowaga. Only Baker has bowled here as a pro in a tour event.
Other Buffalo bowlers could get into the field via the Tour Qualifier, which will be bowled Wednesday afternoon.
Sean Rash, 23, the hottest young bowler on the tour, won last week's West Virginia Open after getting into the field via the qualifying route. He'll have to do the same this week.
The history of the tour stop here goes back to 1964. Jack Dolan, the former manager at Thruway, was here for many of them. Dolan, who is assisting with the preparations for the Geico, has many stories to tell.
"There was the night Carmen Salvino placed his ball on the ball-washing machine and it rolled off and broke his foot," Dolan said. "He had to withdraw from the tournament. There was another pro who used to go through a quart of whiskey every night while he was bowling."
When future Hall of Famer Wayne Zahn won the 1964 Buffalo Open at Fairlanes, the winner's purse was $4,000. Next week, somebody will walk out of Thruway Lanes $40,000 richer as the winner. Total prize money is $223,000. The minimum cash is $2,000.
Zahn was the first of several PBA Hall of Fame bowlers to win here. Others are Bill Allen (1965), Nelson Burton Jr. (1967), Bob Strampe (1968), Dick Ritger (1969), George Pappas (1970, 1984), Dave Soutar (1974), Tommy Hudson (1975), Larry Laub (1978), Wayne Webb (1979), Joe Berardi (1980), Roy Buckley (1981) and Mark Roth (1987). Soutar's win came at Suburban Lanes in the Town of Tonawanda. The tournament, called the Home Box Office Open, was moved from Thruway because of a roof collapse at the Cheektowaga facility.
Following Roth's victory in 1987, Thruway hosted four Senior/Touring Pro Doubles championships. Salvino, Soutar, Dick Weber and Teata Semiz were the senior winners. All are Hall of Famers.
* Never think you're too old to improve. Mel Sauer of Depew bowled his career-best 771 series when the BPA Traveling Seniors league stopped at Abbott Lanes. The 76-year-old, who is retired after 22 years at Ford Motors, got better as he went along -- 256, then 257, then 258. His previous high series was 761 10 years ago.
"I'm still looking for a 300 game or an 800," said Sauer.
* Gary Kinyon led the qualifying with 280-754, then disposed of Dennis Kempner, Randy Faith, Glen Hauptman and Terry Bennetti for his fourth Brunswick Senior Challenge title of the season at Transit Lanes.
* Tonawanda Bowling Center hung on to its slim lead in the second-half standings of the BPA Buffalo Beverage Miller Lite All-Stars travel league with a 22-11 win over Kenmore last week at Transit Lanes. Transit is only 1 1/2 points behind after a 21-12 win over Ideal. Third-place Spare Time is four points behind after a 21-12 win over Alden. The league averaged 216.2. Today's stop is at Broadway at 2 p.m. The second All-Stars-Youth Challenge match of the season will be Sunday at Tonawanda with a 3:45 p.m. check-in and a 4:15 start.
* Monday is the final deadline for nominations for the 2006 Class of the Greater Buffalo United States Bowling Congress Hall of Fame. . . . The first GBUSBC Awards Dinner will be June 25 at Shanghai Red's. The youth dinner will be April 1 at Kiebzak's.