Imagine a game that involves tossing a little metal ball and a group of people who are happily chasing it and you’ve pretty much got the idea behind Irish road bowling.
Once a year at the International Racetrack on Hutchinson Island, teams of local bowlers gather to celebrate the sport. This year, fans and players will gather at the track on March 25.
Walt Harper is the president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Savannah, which hosts the event.
“This will be our 11th year,” he says. “We like to promote anything Irish — history, sports and that type of thing. We knew there wasn’t anything going on in Savannah with Irish road bowling, so we started this.
“People are becoming more aware of it. It’s been played up in West Virginia since the Civil War,” Harper says. “It was brought in by immigrants because the terrain was very similar to what they have in Ireland.”
The balls, or bowls, that are used weigh 28 ounces.
“They’re cannonballs, actually,” Harper says. “You don’t think they’re heavy until you start throwing them 20 times around the course, or in some people’s cases 22, 23, 25, 30 times.
“The object is to keep the bowl on the road as long as possible. Where it goes out and stops is where you bowl from.
“When it goes off the road, it slows down really quickly,” he says. “The key is to keep it on the road and keep it as straight as possible and watch and follow the road.”
The Hutchinson Island course is tough.
“The race track is 2 miles,” Harper says. “It’s got the S curve on the back side, which can make it interesting.
“If you get it just right, if you are lucky, it will keep on going,” he says. “A lot of times, people are not so lucky and have to do a couple extra strokes.”
In Ireland, there are two types of road bowling: the Southern or County Cork style, and the Northern or County Armagh style.
“We do kind of a mix,” Harper says. “People adopt their own style, so there’s kind of three different styles.”
Last year’s competition was the largest to date.
“We had 63 three-man teams,” Harper says. “It was our largest year.
“We have the three-man team, so one person bowls. The other two go down the road to spot for the ball as it’s coming toward them.
“They’re watching where the ball goes off the road and locate it,” he says. “We painted them orange so it’s a little easier to find them in the green grass.”
The competition is open to anyone, Irish or not.
“The first bowl is at 10 a.m.,” Harper says. “Spectators are welcome, we just ask that they don’t try to stop the ball as it’s coming toward them.
“We do invite people to come and watch. Maybe if they get up the gumption to try it next year, they can do that.
“Registration is open the day of,” he says. “If someone decides to go ahead and do it, they can.”
Road bowling is a bit like golf in one way.
“We send one team out and wait a little and send two teams out,” Harper says. “We send them out in teams of two, so six people are out on the track at one time.”
Potential bowlers can sign up at aohsavannah.com, or pick up a registration form at O’Connell’s Irish Pub, 42 Drayton St., or the Knights of Columbus at either 700 Christopher Drive or 3 W. Liberty St.
The winner is the bowler who gets the ball around the course with the least amount of throws.
“The lowest score we ever had was 18,” Harper says. “I’ve done it in 22, me and two other people. It usually averages about 28 to 30.
“It really doesn’t take any major skill. You throw the ball and throw it straight.
“Throwing the ball after five or six times, it starts getting heavy,” he says. “After you’ve done it once or twice, you can feel it the next day.”
And it’s all for a good cause.
“The funds raised go back into the community,” Harper says. “We support different charitable organizations.”
Each year also features a special match.
“We’ve started pitting the current grand marshal against the last year’s grand marshal,” Harper says. “The Irish organizations go against each other, too. It’s a lot of fun.”
IF YOU GO
What: Irish Road Bowling with the Ancient Order of Hibernians of Savannah
When: 10 a.m. March 25
Where: International Racetrack, Hutchinson Island
Cost: $20 per person and $60 per team to participate, free to watch