“NO BOCCE GAMES ALLOWED. LAWN BOWLING ONLY” declares a sign outside an arrangement of neatly trimmed lawns in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The warning to those practicing a less refined outdoor bowling game is just part of the over hundred-year traditions of one of the oldest sports organizations in the United States.

article-imagephotograph by Nico Roicke

You might assume that the sports club tradition would be more storied for the hearty American sports of baseball or football, but in fact lawn bowling has just as deep a history in the country. The San Francisco Lawn Bowling Club held their first game in October of 1901. It was then known as the San Francisco Scottish Bowling Club, and according to Golden Gate Park it’s now the oldest public club in the United States. 

article-imagePlayers in 1901 (via Todd Lappin)

The club in 1910 (via Todd Lappin)

While the Scottish community in the city had a big influence on the club, even using traditional wooden balls brought right over from Scotland for the first games, it was Scottish park superintendent John McClaren who gave the game such solid standing in the community. McLaren stated that: “This pleasant sport has been held in high repute in the British Isles and its introduction on this coast would be beneficial both to young and old alike as it combines an exercise with the pleasures of amusement.” McClaren later became Vice President of the lawn bowling club. In 1912, a second court was added for women, and a third green later followed. 

The sport, also known as “bowls,” has a history going back to at least the 13th century in Great Britain, and there are still hundreds of clubs in Scotland. It’s not a speedy game or anything thrilling as a spectator sport, but players appreciate its meditative, skill-based competitiveness. It was actually so wildly popular in Britain that it was outlawed twice because people weren’t getting much else done, although those rulings were never respected in Scotland. 

article-imagephotograph by David Lytle

Aside from when a rebuild of the smooth lawns was necessitated by the 1906 earthquake, the lawn bowling in San Francisco has continued to this day. You can still see the players dressed in their crisp white uniforms, and on Wednesdays free lessons are offered to anyone looking for some of the Scottish sporting life. 

article-imagephotograph by xeeliz/Flickr user


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