The trials of Tommy Jones

Tommy Jones picks up his ball and prepares for his first shot under the hot lights of TV cameras in nearly a year. The same Tommy Jones who won his first ten titles more quickly than Dick Weber did, more quickly, in fact, than anyone in the history of the Professional Bowlers Association. The same Tommy Jones whom the PBA named the 30th greatest player in history just as he also prepared to turn only 30 years old.

But it is the Tommy Jones who leaves a five count in the first frame and chops a spare in the next that provokes more discussion of rust and struggle than about the Player of the Year with the winning percentage of 80% on TV.

It is January in Medford, where Oregon native Marshall Holman takes his first row seat once again behind the lanes at the Earl Anthony Medford Classic as bowlers whose dreams he inspired battle to attain the glory he knew.

"I grew up watching Roth and Holman, and it was just something I always wanted to do," Jones remembers of his beginnings in the sport. "So I would go bowl on Saturday mornings, then I would go home and watch the show, and then I would be back at the bowling alley that afternoon."

Holman, whose voice as a PBA commentator became as familiar to fans in the 1990s as it was in his late-'70s prime when his angry howls accompanied the gritted teeth and fist pumps he was known for, knows as well as anyone the voice he hears now from a disgruntled Tommy Jones-the voice that does not accept failure.

"What was THAT!?" Tommy screams at himself after a bad shot at a crucial moment puts the dagger in him in his title match against Wes Malott. "Throw it like you used to bowl!"

It is as much the voice of Tommy Jones as it is of the man who put him back on TV after nearly a year of struggles sent him to join the spectators who watch match play from somewhere behind the lanes.

"I ride him hard. I say 'Hey Tommy, what the hell do you think you're doing?" explains that man, renowned bowling coach and 4-time PBA titlist Mark Baker.

"You can't miss your good lane!" Jones screams months later on the 2009 USBC Masters telecast, a burst of impatience that echoes his coach's bluntness. "Pathetic!"

 "You have to be that way to be great," Mark Baker insists. "Watch Tiger Woods, he hits one bad driver and he breaks it. Earl Anthony, he could have the front 7 and still lose it. Those guys are fired up, they are very intense. And I am very intense. I like the fact that Tommy gets mad at himself. It's one of his best traits. He tries so hard and that's why I love to work with him. He can take a ribbing."

But after 2 majors and 12 titles in just 8 years on tour, Tommy is much more accustomed to delivering ribbings rather than receiving them. And that was exactly the problem-any ribbing he endured at the hands of coach Baker was only the latest in a saga of struggle that began when he, like other professional bowlers, responded to the physical grind of the touring life by taking the weight of his ball down a notch.

"I tried to switch to 15 pounds just to take some stress off my body. You know, with getting a little older and everything," Jones explains. "But without that extra weight the top of my swing got way too steep and what happened was I started trying to muscle it. Then after that I just started bowling scared, I kind of lost confidence."

As usual, his coach has a more direct way of seeing things, and explains Jones's struggles in simpler terms that leave little to the imagination.

"Guys he was used to beating were beating him," Baker says of the broken-down champ who came to him with a bandaged ego and a family to raise. "I was never as good as Tommy, but I was on tour myself and I know what it's like when the ball doesn't feel good coming off your hand and you've got a mortgage to pay every month. I get it. When you're no longer physically able to do what you once did, it's called retirement. But Tommy wasn't done."

Not by a long shot. After riding a 300 game in the position round last week at the Motor City Open-the inaugural event of the World Series of Bowling-Tommy joined the kind of company in which he feels he belongs. The Telecast for the Motor City Open is one that, no matter what happens from this point forward in the 2009-2010 season, will easily rank among the most star-studded of the year, featuring a combined total of 83 titles between the finalists. Jones joins Walter Ray Williams Jr., Pete Weber, Chris Barnes and up-and-coming standout Bill O'Neill on his way to the ferocious comeback he envisions.

"I want to get back on track," Jones says of his goals for the new season. "Even though I bowled terrible last year I still ended up 11th in the points. That was the first time I had been out of the top ten since my second year on tour. So obviously getting back into the top ten is a goal, but I really want to be in the top 5. I feel like that's where I belong, but there's a lot of guys out there who feel that way too so I am just going to do a lot of work."

He will do a lot of work. Exactly the reason that the next time Tommy Jones comes knocking on Mark Baker's door to get his feel back, he will once again be welcomed with the open arms of a coach whom he praises for having a "great eye for everything," a man for whom friendship and honesty are never mutually exclusive.

"I think if I wasn't honest we would not be friends," the proudly blunt Baker explains. "Tommy is a good guy and he works real hard for me. Make sure you get that in there."