SPRING HILL — When the Southern Regional Spring Hill Open drew to a close Sunday, the person holding the trophy was the youngest champion in the 25-year history of the bowling tournament.
North Carolina native Connor Pickford, 21, became only the sixth non-Florida resident to win the event, sponsored by Thunder Bay Builders, after rolling a 280 in the finals at Spring Hill Lanes to defeat Walter Ray Williams Jr.
Pickford finished with a pin total of 5,016.
For the second consecutive year, the number of entries in the tournament was up — 87 bowlers compared to 84 a year ago. The number had gone down for five straight years until last year.
"This is one of our favorite stops on (Professional Bowlers Association) tour," tournament director Sam Zurich said. "Everyone does a great job getting ready and making this a good weekend for our pros."
Considering there was a major regional bowling tournament in Delaware with a payout of more than $12,000, the draw for the Spring Hill field was considered an accomplishment.
Williams Jr., arguably the best bowler of all time, placed second for the second straight year after winning the Spring Hill Open in 2002.
"I always like coming to this tournament when it fits into my schedule," he said. "This is the closest thing I have to a home tournament, and the fans are always very good."
The finish was impressive for the Ocala resident. He doesn't compete on the tour to add to his resume, which already includes 47 national tournament victories, six senior tournament championships and 32 regional tournament wins. It's about the competition. And after eight games of qualifying, Williams Jr., 53, narrowly made the round of 16, beating out former two-time Spring Hill winner Tom Daugherty by seven pins.
"I was happy to get second place after a slow start," he said.
The thrill of competing against Williams Jr. never gets old for young professionals like Pickford. After his victory, he talked about keeping calm in his one-on-one matches with the 1995 PBA Hall of Fame inductee, 2005 U.S. Bowling Congress Hall of Fame inductee, seven-time PBA Bowler of the Year and two-time PBA Bowler of the Decade.
"When I'm up there against someone like Walter Ray, I just have to tell myself that there is nobody else out here," Pickford said. "I just have to throw my 12 best shots."
The young pro did just that, rolling 11 strikes in 12 shots with his Columbia Eruption ball. Only a pocket 10-pin in the second frame kept him from a perfect game of 300 as he won his second professional title. The 2012 PBA South Region Rookie of the Year won the Toyota Chameleon Open in Cincinnati last year.
Besides Williams Jr. and Daugherty, four other former Spring Hill Open champions were in the weekend field. Darin Hays is the only four-time title winner (1995, 1996, 1999 and 2000), and he finished 44th (1,653). Jason Mahr, the only Spring Hill resident to ever win when he captured titles in 2007 and 2012, came in 51st (1,624). The 2009 champ, Vernon Peterson, cashed with a fifth-place finish, as did 2005 champ Gary Morgan in eighth-place.
Though Mahr is the only local bowler to have won the Spring Hill tournament, there have been plenty of others in the mix over the years, and this year was no exception. Anthony Caso, 18, placed 32nd in his second time in the Spring Hill field. Caso, who works at the pro shop at Spring Hill Lanes, finished with 1,707.
Spring Hill resident Chris Polizzi, the 2009 PBA South Region Rookie of the Year, finished only 14 pins behind Williams Jr. for the final spot in the round of 16. Eric Martins, who dominated the Spring Hill Sweeper two weeks ago to earn a spot in the tournament, placed 61st (1,568). Martins is the son of Spring Hill Lanes owner Carlos Martins.