In Vancouver, lawn bowling all about fun and style

The roaring ’20s have returned in the newest craze: heading to the green for an evening of drinks and friendly competition

It was a simpler time. An age when you could enjoy a frothy beverage outdoors while laughing in grand company. When the right social occasion saw men don bowler hats and women sport their finest summer dresses. And when a few hours spent bowling the lawns of the local country club would never be scoffed at as a distraction from ambition.

That was last summer. And this year, 130 beautiful people are planning to do it all over again.

“It’s classic cocktails, classic leisure wear, classic sport,” Andrew Dalik, a founding director of the Vancouver Leisure Society, told the Georgia Straight. “People get off work and come down, have a bite to eat, have a drink, chat, catch up with old friends, make new friends, and then have some fun throwing lawn bowls around.”

In a separate phone interview, Kim Bowie, the VLS’s social-media guru, picked up where Dalik left off. “It looked like a scene straight out of The Great Gatsby,” she remarked. “When I first rolled in and saw 120 kids all dressed up with their whites and big hats and all their finest, it was just really cool.”

In a third conversation with the Straight, Duncan Gillespie, another founding director of the VLS, laughed as he described older lawn bowlers’ reactions when an “onslaught of people whose age the clubs had never seen” rolled up, sweater vests and high heels aplenty, sound system and liquor sponsorships in tow.

“It was new to them, having young people around,” Gillespie said.

But the city’s lawn bowlers—largely of the baby-boomer generation—may have to get used to sharing their greens with a, shall we say, more festive crowd.

Last July, a boisterous group of 20-somethings congregated for the VLS’s first annual lawn-bowling tournament. And while good times were definitely had by all, the group was doing more than sparking a fad that now threatens to storm country clubs across the Lower Mainland.

“We got to write an $11,000 check to CCFF [the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation],” Gillespie boasted.

All of that money came from registration fees for the four-week-long tournament and alcohol sales, he said. This year, Gillespie continued, the tournament—which is scheduled to run for four consecutive Thursday evenings, beginning July 8—is also open to pledges.

Through the VLS’s Web site, anybody will be able to go on-line and donate money to the CCFF in the name of the tournament or their favourite team. The group that earns the most in pledges will win a prize, as will the best-dressed group and, of course, the team that wins the tournament.

“It was really fun last year and was a really good size, and it went extremely well,” Dalik said. “So we just want to do that again, but find ways to do everything a little bit better or find new ways—like the pledges—to build on our donations from last year.”

The story of how this all came about begins with a few beers at a lawn-bowling club in Sydney, Australia. It was December 2008, and in attendance were Gillespie, Dalik, Dalik’s brother Graham (the third founding director of the VLS), and Vancouver-based film director Philip Lyall.

“We were having a few pitchers and thought that it [lawn bowling] would be a great thing to bring back to Vancouver,” Gillespie said. “And we wanted to do it as an event, but none of us felt like we wanted to make money off of our friends, unless it was for a good cause.”

Coincidentally, Lyall, an old friend of Gillespie’s, had just finished work on 65_Red Roses, a documentary about Eva Markvoort, a young Vancouver woman with cystic fibrosis.

Sterling Aurel, a fundraising coordinator for the CCFF’s Vancouver chapter, told the Straight that cystic fibrosis causes more child deaths than any other genetic disorder in Canada. It is a chronic and degenerative disease, he said, that affects the lungs and digestive system, causing a buildup of mucus and bacteria that can lead to death.

According to the CCFF’s Web site, one in every 3,600 Canadian children has cystic fibrosis, and many do not live past their 30th birthday.

When Lyall showed the boys a rough cut of 65_Red Roses, the CCFF immediately became the obvious choice as the VLS’s beneficiary.

A couple of months later and back in Vancouver, Gillespie and the Daliks got to work on bringing lawn bowling to the city’s young and hip.

“We found out that we needed to incorporate some sort of entity,” Gillespie said, a nonprofit organization that could have a bank account, obtain liquor licences for special events, and donate to charities.

And so from heads filled with trite and comical images of Victorian galas and distinguished competition, the Vancouver Leisure Society was born.

The next step was getting country clubs to allow a swarm of young adults fuelled by drink, music, and the natural excitement of a Vancouver summer to take over their bowling greens. It was a task that proved surprisingly easy, Gillespie said.

He explained that he sent an e-mail to a number of clubs around the Lower Mainland, and that this message ended up being read aloud at a general meeting attended by representatives of every lawn-bowling club in British Columbia. Gillespie’s inbox was subsequently inundated with eager replies from clubs across the province.

Mary Hodgson, membership director of the Stanley Park Lawn Bowling Club, told the Straight that she was thrilled when approached by the VLS.

“The younger people certainly brought more of a party atmosphere to the game,” she noted. “They were out to have a good time and to fundraise and not necessarily to compete seriously.”

And that was just what the club was looking for, Hodgson continued, explaining that many lawn-bowling venues are eager to welcome younger crowds.

And so, with the luxury of getting to pick where its inaugural tournament would be held, the VLS decided on two locations—the Stanley Park and the Granville Park lawn-bowling clubs, which Gillespie described as two of the most picturesque in the city.

Shortly thereafter, sponsors were lined up and word of the VLS’s venture was out. An extended network of friends quickly filled up the slots in the tournament’s registration, and on July 2, 2009, the first bowl was rolled.

Now, with this year’s tournament set to kick off in less than a month, Gillespie said he’s worried the tournament is already so popular that there will be a scramble for positions on the 32 teams (two more than last year).

Not to be lost in all the fun, however, is the touching cause for which all of this has happened.

Markvoort was a good friend of many of last year’s tournament participants. After undergoing a double lung transplant in 2007, she made it out to all four of 2009’s lawn-bowling events.

“She was a brand-new person with a brand-new lease on life,” Gillespie recalled. “She was the one dancing in the middle of the green, just having a blast.”

But roughly two months later, Markvoort’s 25-year-old body began to reject its new lungs. After another six months, on March 27, Markvoort lost her long, hard-fought battle with cystic fibrosis.

Because she spent the last several years of her life as the poster child for the search for a cure, Markvoort’s passing will no doubt be felt at this year’s VLS events.

Kim Bowie, a good friend of Markvoort’s, said she was thankful that so many people got to enjoy her company in what was really the prime of her life.

“That summer was probably the healthiest she was; that was when we were still really hopeful that the lungs would take,” Bowie continued. “The images I have of her in my mind, all dressed up, parading around the lawn-bowling courts, they are going to be burned in there forever.”

Gillespie remarked on Markvoort’s apparent awareness that her time was limited, and on the eternal optimism she still espoused.

“When I went and visited her in the hospital she’d be upbeat, and it was her braveness and outlook that made it easier on others,” Gillespie said. “So this year is definitely going to be a celebration. It is not a mourning at all. It is just going to be an awesome celebration to help remember her and carry on her legacy.”

Dalik emphasized that the goal of this year’s tournament is for every participant to have the best time possible, and, of course, to raise more money for the CCFF.

“To go out on the green on a summer’s day with a classic cocktail and throw some lawn bowls—there’s really no better way to relax,” he said. “And so we thought that this would be a really great way to do two really great things at once.”

Those who want to support the CCFF and this year’s VLS lawn-bowling tournament can go to their Web site and click on the Donate link. All donations will go to the CCFF.

Watch the trailer for 65_Red Roses. 

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Jun 17, 2010 at 10:38am

And in a related story, scores of unwashed septuagenarians have recently been spotted languishing on the sidewalks, playing bongos, and smoking dope in the Granville Entertainment District.

Lizzy Karp

Jun 18, 2010 at 3:19pm

So excited to see people creatively celebrating the life of Eva Markvoort. You can order the award winning documentary about her life 65 Red Roses at Proceeds go towards an Organ Donation Campaign.

John Aveline

Jun 18, 2010 at 11:27pm

Great article. The 7 bowls clubs in Vancouver are very open to anyone who is interested in the Sport of Bowls. I gotta say that at annual dues in the $175 range and NO greens fees, the clubs aren't exactly 'country clubs'. In fact, Vancouver South has traditionally been considered a 'working man's' club. The 3 clubs were very happy to contribute to the event and support such a great cause. I had a chance to meet Eva and see what a truly alive person she was.


Jun 21, 2010 at 2:27pm

I love it! We've started something very similar in Saskatoon this year and it's a huge hit! We have 54 new members signed up in an 8-week triples tournament at the Nutana Lawn Bowling Club and people are just loving it.

I'm addicted to Bowls...