SPRING HILL — For only the fifth time in the 23-year history of the PBA Southern Region Spring Hill Open, a non-Florida resident won the tournament this past weekend at Spring Hill Lanes.
Montgomery, Ala., native Mike Williams II emerged with the championship trophy.
The 2011 field shrank in number to 71, down from 92 last year. In 2007, there were almost 200 participants in the only regular professional sporting event that takes place in Hernando County.
Despite the lower turnout, Spring Hill Lanes proprietors George and Carlos Martins were pleased with the weekend's festivities. The pro-am tournament on Friday and the number of fans who came to watch Sunday's finals were indications that the PBA remains a major draw for area bowling fans.
"With 211 participants in the pro-am, (PBA Southern Region director) Harry (O'Neale) pointed out that we still hold one of the largest tournaments on the tour," George Martins said. "That's always something to be proud of."
The charismatic style of the tournament victor seemed infectious as the finals wore on. Williams, 25, is only in his first full season on tour after competing in about of half the regional events in 2010. His weekend didn't start off like he hoped after the qualifying period Saturday. With the cut at one pin over handicap, the eventual champ narrowly made it by scoring two pins over handicap.
"I went back that night and really studied (the oil pattern)," he said. "It paid off for me when I came back."
His adjustments on the "chameleon" pattern (where increased volumes of oil are placed in "zones" along a lane) were important as he became the hottest bowler in the field Sunday. Facing Spring Hill's Chris Polizzi in the round of 16, Williams overwhelmed the 2009 PBA Southern Region Rookie of the Year. Although Polizzi bowled well, a 745 series by Williams amounted to a three-game sweep.
The quarterfinals matched Williams against another Hernando County resident. Kevin Williams, the owner of Kevin's Pro Shop at Spring Hill Lanes and a member of the Hernando County United States Bowling Congress Hall of Fame, had already achieved his best showing in the pro tournament.
"Kevin really had me on the ropes," Mike Williams said. "He was capable of putting so many strikes together that I had to be on top of my game."
In the first game of the best-of-three round, Kevin Williams handed the young tour regular his first and only loss. Mike Williams went on to win the following two games to advance to the semifinals against Doug Becker.
Becker was in the lead for much of the semifinal match, but Williams put the pressure on his opponent by throwing strikes on his final four balls to put up a 202. Becker would need to strike on the first two balls in the 10th frame to clinch victory. After a first-ball strike, Becker left a ringing 10-pin for a 200.
With a berth in the finals against Dale Coleman of High Springs, Williams was on the verge of a professional milestone.
Despite not being from Florida, Williams does have some ties to the state. A former University of Central Florida bowler, he has been aiming for a pro career since graduating from college in 2006. He credits his time as a Golden Knight for his ability to handle the ups and downs of the game.
"Those guys helped me out a lot to get me where I am today," he said. "We used to work with sports psychologists and bowl in front of some of the biggest crowds from week to week."
Those circumstances allowed Williams to make adjustments in his game without getting too high or low emotionally. It was a strength that would pay off in his match with Coleman.
With a slight advantage midway through the game, he was having some difficulty with consistency. Although he already had the lead, he decided to change balls. The move worked as he finished with six consecutive strikes and a 234-174 victory.
"I can't explain how much this means to me," he said. "This is what I've always dreamed about in my years coming up. It's going to be a nice ride home."
With a five-hour drive back to Alabama ahead of him, Williams was looking forward to basking in the euphoria that came with his first professional title and the $2,500 in prize money.
Richard Langton, a St. Petersburg native and Tallahassee resident and the defending champion, came in fourth. He lost to Coleman in the semifinals.
There were two other former Spring Hill Open champions in the field. Darin Hays, the only four-time title winner (1995-96, 1999-2000), finished 37th (1,542). Tom Daugherty, the 2006 and 2008 champion, came in 59th (1,509).