ARLINGTON, Texas - When Walter Ray Williams Jr. of Ocala, Fla., attempted to defend his title at the United States Bowling Congress Masters in October 2004, he didn't have the luxury of bowling qualifying with the other players. This year, thanks to a rule adjustment, that will change.
In the past, the defending champion at the USBC Masters was seeded directly into the match-play bracket as the No. 32 seed and was not allowed to compete during qualifying. Many players felt it was a disadvantage not being able to experience the lane conditions break down during the week.
So, when this year's Bayer USBC Masters begins on Feb. 8 at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nev., Williams will be allowed to bowl qualifying. But there's a slight catch.
Williams is guaranteed to make the bracket but will no longer be guaranteed the No. 32 seed. His seed will be determined by his finishing position in qualifying. Should he finish outside the top 64, he would be inserted into the No. 64 spot in the bracket.
"I think it's a good format change, and it will let me get an idea of how the lanes will change a little bit," said Williams, a USBC and Professional Bowlers Association Hall of Famer who has the most PBA titles in history with 47. "I am going to try and qualify as high as I can because I don't want to have to bowl the top guy. But once you get to match play, it's a whole new animal."
The reigning PBA Player of the Year, Williams will be looking to make his first TV finals of the season at the Masters, where he defeated Chris Barnes, 290-217, last year to win the title. He also is attempting to become the first player since Billy Welu in 1965 to win the Masters in back-to-back years.
"I haven't been bowling exceptionally this season," said Williams, who will try to join Mike Aulby as a three-time Masters champion. "Hopefully, I can turn it around. I'd say the odds are probably about 1 in 25 that I will defend my title. I'm assuming I'm a little better than the average guy because then the odds would be 1 in 64. Either way, it's not an easy thing to do."
Another change to this year's Masters includes a fundamental format change to the bracket used in the competition. In the past, the bracket matchups were based on a mathematical formula that dates to the tournament's beginnings in the 1950s. For 2011, the bracket will switch to a more traditional format where the No. 1 seed bowls the No. 64 seed and so on.
"A lot of bowlers and fans have been asking for these changes and, after careful consideration, we have decided to make the adjustments," USBC Managing Director of Tournaments Brian Lewis said. "We evaluate our championship events annually to look at changes that need to be made, and these changes just made sense to us."
The Masters, which is a major on the Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour, also is a part of the new World Bowling Tour organized by the World Tenpin Bowling Association. The World Tour is a new concept developed by the WTBA to showcase the best bowlers from around the world. Players who compete in the selected international events and finish among the top three men and top three women in the final points standings will be eligible to compete in the World Bowling Tour Finals, a special televised event with a prize fund of $40,000.
As of Thursday, more than a dozen international players had entered the Masters, which is expected to feature a field of more than 220 of the top amateur and professional players competing for a prize fund of $230,000.
All participants will bowl two five-game blocks of qualifying on Feb. 8 and 9 before the first cut is made to the top 64 bowlers (or 25 percent if more than 256 entries). After another five games the morning of Feb. 10, the top 63 bowlers will join Williams in match play, which continues until the top four bowlers are determined for the TV finals. The stepladder finals will take place at 3 p.m. Eastern on Feb. 13 and be broadcast live on ESPN.
For more information on the Masters, click here.