Fun in the sun: Former Zoo Lake Bowling Club president Graham Walker plays against Bhekumuzi Ndakane. Picture: SYDNEY SESHIBEDI
Fun in the sun: Former Zoo Lake Bowling Club president Graham Walker plays against Bhekumuzi Ndakane. Picture: SYDNEY SESHIBEDI

Lawn bowls used to be a dying sport in SA until Divian Cooper flexed his muscles in Johannesburg.

He knows that when most people think of lawn bowls, the image that usually springs to mind is elderly people dressed in white, wearing pedestrian hats and special shoes, moving slowly across carefully manicured greens.

Cooper manages the iconic Zoo Lake Bowls Club. The three greens are carefully manicured, of course. But he is breathing new life into the sport and opened up the club to people of all ages and races.

He is rehabilitating the reputation of lawn bowls to boost its health benefits.

Gone is the predominantly Anglo-Saxon profile of lawn bowls in Britain. That’s where it all started and spread to English-speaking Commonwealth countries.

Chief among those are Australia and New Zealand. Canada didn’t take to the sport, but it is popular in the US.

And when it comes to the ratio of people to lawn bowls greens, Cooper says that SA may lead the world.

At the Zoo Lake Bowls Club these days, young players are dressed in casual, comfortable clothes of differing hues. They have to wear flat shoes that don’t damage the lawns.

The club still caters for league players with a competitive instinct. But Cooper puts just as much emphasis on lawn bowls as a healthy, recreational sport, particularly for disadvantaged youngsters.

He plays recreationally and has become close to messianic about the benefits of lawn bowls for players of all ages.

For starters, it is not a physically demanding sport, hence its attraction for older players. That makes it suitable for players of any level of physical fitness and just about any age. It is also low impact, which makes it a therapeutic form of exercise that is kind to joints. Other benefits include improved fitness, balance, hand-eye co-ordination, focused awareness, distance judgment and mental wellbeing.

Another bonus is the uniqueness of the physical location: in the heart of the city, residential yet close to the business hubbub of Rosebank.

The leafy, natural setting of grounds, foliage and bird life close to the Johannesburg Zoo is another distinct advantage. That makes for an injection of a natural tranquiliser straight into the veins.

The social interaction and community connectedness among players of all ages adds to the health benefit profile of lawn bowls, Cooper says.

David Mokgomola, the club’s chief grounds and greens keeper, agrees. He has been playing bowls for 25 years and also trains newcomers in the skills and rules of the sport.

He says that it takes him no time at all to train most players. In some cases, 10 minutes may be all he needs.

Mokgomola says younger players learn faster than the older generation. But when it comes to mastering the skills, there’s no difference between the genders.

And if a lawn really is "nature under totalitarian rule" (a quote by author Michael Pollan), Mokgomola makes a great dictator. He is a stickler for the detail required to keep the lawns in tip-top shape.

He wields the scarifying machine as if to the manner born. That’s not really as scary as it sounds. The machine has nails in it to take out the dead top layer of grass.

Mokgomola also uses a special lawn mower and grader to do the cutting, brushing and grooming required for the tedious daily lawn maintenance.

In that way, he’s probably more of a barber than a benign dictator. And he knows all about the humidity levels of the lawns and how these can affect the speed of bowls as they head for the jack.

The aim of the game itself is relatively simple. Players roll slightly asymmetrical balls of differing weights, known as the bowls, closer to a smaller white ball, known as the jack, than opponents are able to do.

Lawn bowls used to be made from wood in the old days, hence the old name of woods. These days they are made from a composite material that includes leatherette on the outside.

Lawn bowls is related to bocce, also known as Italian lawn bowling. Bocce is said to be one of the most widely played games in the world and the oldest lawn or yard games.

It is also related to the French game of pétanque, also known as boules. Fans of pétanque say that it is the sport "closest to French hearts".

Pétanque is similar to lawn bowls. But the French play it with metallic balls on a hard surface. Boulodromes, the equivalent of lawn bowls clubs, are social meeting places in southern France.

Yet Cooper’s facelift for lawn bowls nearly didn’t happen. His company, Kenako Consulting, won the tender to take over the lease in June 2013. The incumbents were not exactly happy about that win. They used all the tricks in the book to attempt to block him, he says.

It took more than two years of legal action including an urgent interdict and close to R2m to achieve a high court ruling in his favour in 2017.

The ruling noted that there was nothing untoward in the tender process — as had been alleged.

The leaseholders had also benefited for years from paying a paltry sum of R449 annually to use the prime property.

The owners of the club’s land and premises, the City of Johannesburg, should have handed over to Cooper in a decent state. However, when he occupied the club in August 2016, the premises had been thoroughly vandalised.

He spent about R700,000 of his own money refurbishing it.

Cooper has no regrets. His focus is firmly on making the Zoo Lake Bowls Club a similar focal point for social gatherings. That includes networking, yoga sessions and team-building exercises. JSE-listed entities are already among corporates that now use the club regularly.

He has added board games including chess, and quiz nights on the menu of recreational entertainment options.

Cooper aims to be the first in SA to introduce night bowls with ultra-violet balls to make the sport even more attractive to the youth.

And he reminds players that unlike golf, lawn bowls is one sport in which they will seldom risk losing the ball.

• Sboros is editor and publisher of Foodmed.net

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