ARLINGTON, Texas – When Kelly Kulick steps onto the lanes this week to defend her title at the Professional Women’s Bowling Association (PWBA) Fountain Valley Open, she will bring the passion that makes her a title contender every week.
Fountain Bowl in Fountain Valley, California, once again will be the site for the PWBA Fountain Valley Open, the second consecutive year Fountain Bowl has hosted a PWBA event after last hosting the 1992 U.S. Women’s Open.
Competition kicks off Friday with qualifying, and the stepladder finals are set for Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Fans can catch all the action on Xtra Frame, the online bowling channel of the Professional Bowlers Association.
The one thing Kulick, of Union, New Jersey, wants to do is see bowling succeed, especially women’s bowling. Hers was one of the most prominent faces in the sport, especially when the PWBA Tour took a 12-year hiatus before returning in 2015. She continued to bowl while fanning the embers, hoping to re-ignite some variation of a Tour she barely had the chance to enjoy as a young player just out of college.
She served many roles as a bowling warrior – pioneer, ambassador, inspiration – but with the return of the Tour, that responsibility no longer is hers alone. The next generation has shown so much talent and potential, and while they push Kelly to work harder, stay sharp and continue to excel, she knows her role has changed.
She’s still a top competitor, a knowledgeable voice in the booth for various telecasts and still inspires young bowlers, but she’s not exactly sure where she truly fits in the current landscape.
For so long, bowling was life. As many others moved on and found other careers and passions, Kulick stayed with it, and her persistence was rewarded in 2015 with a second chance at the career she worked so hard for, on a stage just for women.
But, life changed for her in 2016. Now, maybe there’s more than bowling. Or maybe not. Does she have anything to prove, given her hall-of-fame resume?
Kulick might be asking herself those questions, but there’s no doubt she still feels the fire and the passion on the lanes. There’s no doubt she’s hungry for more titles and motivated by every defeat. You can see it on the lanes. She got a taste of it at Fountain Valley last year and enjoyed a very successful season.
In 2017, Kulick was finally able to cash in her chips and take home her first title since the relaunch of the PWBA Tour. The victory was a bright spot during a challenging time in her life.
As she entered the Fountain Valley Open in 2017, Kulick still was grieving the death of her mother, Carol, in 2016, while also trying to figure out why she couldn’t win a title, despite making 10 stepladder finals appearances during the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
A win with such significance might change a person’s life, considering the challenges, but Kulick, the winner and champion she is, never loses sight of the task at hand.
“The job is to go and bowl every week with the opportunity to win,” Kulick said. “You put your shoes on and you want to win every weekend. Our Tour was unique because we qualified in one place and bowled the finals in another. I think that hurt me sometimes, but I also think it sometimes benefited me. It was special just to finally get the win after being on tour for three years; however, it doesn’t change the fact about what I need to do on a weekly basis.”
While Kulick cashed in professionally, the death of a parent generally is not something one gets past quickly. It can affect your professional life and change one’s outlook.
“I look back and say it was a very challenging year personally with her passing, with arranging my father’s finances, going through the grief with my family and sharing that with friends,” Kulick said. “That was challenging, and I don’t know if I’ve ever actually recovered from it. I’m not happy out here right now. I’m still searching for the love I used to have for this, but it has become more of a job than it is a passion. So, in that respect, it’s changed in the way that I don’t know what direction I want to continue in.”
Considering all she’s been through in the past two years, Kulick still provides fans with thrills in the way she’s done for the better part of 20 years. The 2017 Fountain Valley Open could’ve ended the way many events before it did, but Kulick reminded herself she can be great at any time, even during severe challenges.
“When you lead a tournament, it’s devastating to lose after you’ve led for so many games,” said Kulick, who bucked that trend with her 2017 win. “And, it’s unfortunate a lot of my losses have come after leading an event. But, that’s our sport. That’s our game. I wasn’t in the shape I wanted to be in, and I was going through a very dark period of my life. But, even at my lowest, I can still be at my greatest.
“That’s kind of what I took away from it. And it made the season the one where I finally had a break. I felt rejuvenated on a personal level, but not at a professional, athletic level.”
Maybe, with the new Tour, and life after her mom’s death, there's a new Kelly. She’s seeing things differently. Appreciating things differently. She wants to enjoy the Tour life, rather than just the highs on the lanes.
Maybe success is a nice dinner with hall-of-fame friends, the chance to connect with fans from coast to coast or the opportunity to use bowling as her ticket to walk in the Pacific Ocean.
Kulick enters the 2018 Fountain Valley Open in the midst of a slow start, in comparison to previous seasons. She finished 17th at the season-opening Las Vegas Open and 28th in last week’s Sonoma County Open. While she hasn’t had the start she would like, there still is plenty of time to have the type of impact she expects to make in 2018.
“I’m still waiting for the timeframe that says it’s going to be a win or a top-four finish,” said Kulick, referring to what could get her going this season. “I’ve been out of the gate really strong during the last three seasons, and this year, I’m hoping I’m Secretariat and I come on strong at the end. I hate to say it, and I don’t know if it’s just me personally, but as you get older and as you get slower, you start to have self-doubt.
“I would love to ask (Rafael) Nadal and (Roger) Federer. I’d love to ask Liz (Johnson). I’d love to ask Chris Barnes. Some of these athletes who have been doing it to where it becomes providing for your family and paying your bills. Is it still as enjoyable as the first time you experienced it? Because right now, that’s no for me. But, I know what it can be.”
Perhaps, more success, or another win this week, will offer clarification, one way or the other.
Regardless, she’ll give it all 100 percent, as she always does, and every competitor will know she’s still a player to beat, week in and week out.