SPRING HILL — The Professional Bowlers Association has made its way to town every year for more than two decades, and sometimes one fact gets overlooked: The PBA's Spring Hill Open is the lone regular pro sporting event in Hernando County.
The 22nd annual tournament last weekend at Spring Hill Lanes featured all of the festivities that fans have come to expect.
From the pro-am, where the pros dazzled local bowlers to start off the weekend, to the crowds that turned out to watch the lively head-to-head matches in the finals, Spring Hill Lanes proprietors Carlos and George Martins were beaming with pride at how everything went.
In the end, it was Richard Langton of Tallahassee who walked away with the regional title.
A St. Petersburg native, Langton has been competing in this tournament since 1994, and his father competed in it before him. He has three professional titles to his credit, but this was his first since 2007. The 35-year-old was especially excited to win one close to where he grew up.
"The sound of the pins falling here is familiar," Langton said. "There's something about walking into this center that is different from the others."
Langton's road to the championship was not an easy one. In the finals, he squared off with Trip Roberts of Richmond, Va. Roberts finished with the highest pin total of the tournament (5,182), but his tough bracket finally seemed to catch up with him during his match with Langton.
Roberts broke out to a fast start, striking on five of his first six balls, but Langton continued to hang around, marking in almost every frame. When the strikes stopped for Roberts, they began for Langton. He struck eight times in a row to win 246 to 236.
"It's easier to come from behind because you have nothing to lose," Langton said. "Your muscles aren't tight."
Roberts couldn't survive back-to-back grinders for the title. He had just been in a tough match against A.J. Rice of Salem, Ala., in the semifinals. In that single-game elimination, the tables were turned.
Rice, the lone two-handed bowler in the field, made things difficult on Roberts and forced him to come from behind. Needing a strike on the second-to-last ball in the 10th frame, Roberts defeated Rice 234 to 227 to qualify for the championship match.
It was Roberts' third second-place finish of the season, a bittersweet feeling for the pro with a history of success in his family. His older brother, Kip Roberts, is a 10-time champion on tour.
"I'm always the bridesmaid and never the bride, I guess," Roberts said, "but there were a lot of adjustments I had to make today. Nothing came easy."
What makes the Spring Hill stop on the tour exciting for the pros is the fan and spectator support they receive. Many claim that it's unlike anywhere else. While the economy has hurt the sport, which depends on out-of-pocket entries, there is still a solid amount of interest in the Spring Hill championship.
"This is what you practice for, and this is what you bowl for," Roberts said. "You don't see this kind of interest in what we're doing up in Virginia."
Only three years ago, there were close to 200 participants in the tournament; this year the number was down to 92. Even last year's champion, Vernon Peterson of Winter Haven, didn't return to defend his crown.
Among those who were in this year's field, however, was Jason Mahr of Spring Hill. Mahr, who currently competes only part time, won the Spring Hill Open in 2007 — the only local bowler to ever do so. This year, he finished 33rd (1,730).
Chris Polizzi of Spring Hill, the 2009 PBA Southern Region Tour Rookie of the Year, made it to the brackets and was defeated by Rice. He finished 15th and won $600 as the top local bowler.