Qualifying: Rd. 3 | Rd. 4
ROCKFORD, Ill. - Opportunity doesn't knock very often on the Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour, but when it does, you have to open the door.
Liz Kuhlkin of Schenectady, New York, saw her opportunity to move into the lead during the Round of 12 and seized her moment to overtake Breanna Clemmer of Clover, South Carolina, to capture the top seed at the PWBA Rockford Open.
The finals will be broadcast live on Sunday at 6 p.m. Eastern on CBS Sports Network, with the champion taking home the $20,000 first-place prize.
Joining Kuhlkin and Clemmer in the stepladder will be No. 3 Kelly Kulick of Union, New Jersey, No. 4 Shannon O'Keefe of Belleville, Illinois, and No. 5 Stefanie Johnson of McKinney, Texas.
Entering the final game of Round 4, Kuhlkin trailed Clemmer by four pins, which made the situation simple for both players to acquire the top seed. Kuhlkin, who was paired with Clemmer for the final round, put together a game of 234, while Clemmer could only get to 210, giving Kuhlkin the top spot.
Kuhlkin finished with a 5,354 total for 24 games, a 223.08 average. Clemmer had 5,334.
Clemmer led for three consecutive rounds and was dominant before struggling in the final round and eventually ceding the lead to Kuhlkin, who was in second place after Rounds 2 and 3. The run to the top spot began in the final game of Round 3 for Kuhlkin, who rolled a 267 game to close the gap to 78 pins prior to the final six-game block.
"It's kind of like chipping away," said Kuhlkin, who will be looking for her third career PWBA Tour title. "I bridged the gap a lot, so when I did that it was kind of within reach at that point. So, I knew going into the second block I just needed to do my thing, hit the pocket, make spares, get to a good pair and score big, and I was able to get some hits and get it done."
Kuhlkin's last win came at the 2018 U.S. Women's Open, and while she's had some success in recent seasons, she feels she has somewhat underachieved and looks to change that mantra on Sunday.
"This is going to sound harsh, but I feel the past couple years I've been sort of mediocre, and I've kind of underachieved," said Kuhlkin, who also won the 2015 PWBA Topeka Open. "I always felt like I've been an elite player on tour, and I have the passion and will to win. But at the end of the day, you have to do it, and this is how you do it.
"You put yourself in position to win, you make the TV shows, you make it as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, but at the end of the day, it's about finishing up the job, too. So, I'm 75% there and I need to show up tomorrow, but it means a lot to me to start off the season this way. It shows that I could do it. I knew I could, but now, I'm showing it for real."
Despite losing the top seed, Clemmer was not disappointed and instead hung her hat on the positives she learned during the final round that will set her up for success in future events.
"No, I'm always learning," said Clemmer, who had two third-place finishes in 2021. "I think today I learned more than I have the whole week. You know, when it comes to equipment and lane play, and what I can really do with my hand, I learned that more today than anything. So, I'm not disappointed at all. I'm always working and always learning. You always have to take something positive from it."
Kulick, who began the final round in eighth place, found herself in fourth with one game to go. She improved her seeding after rolling 245 in Game 24 to earn the third seed. Kulick's jump was thanks to tossing the highest six-game block (1,374) of the round. She will look to win her eighth career PWBA Tour title and second in as many seasons.
O'Keefe struggled late in Round 4 and was 12 pins back in seventh position with one game to go. As champions often do, O'Keefe found the right equipment, dug deep and began the last game with seven consecutive strikes, ultimately finishing with a 245 game to make up the difference and earn a spot in the finals.
O'Keefe won the opening event of the 2021 season, the Bowlers Journal Classic, and will look to repeat that feat Sunday. If she wins, it will be her 15th career PWBA Tour title.
Johnson also found some difficulties down the stretch in Round 4, but she did just enough to stay ahead of England's Verity Crawley for the final spot. Needing a mark in the 10th frame to clinch the fifth seed, Johnson found a way to strike to remain in the top five after entering the final game in third place. Johnson is in search of her fourth PWBA title and first since 2018.
The 80-player field bowled 12 games Friday, before the first cut to the top 27 athletes. Advancers bowled an additional six-game block Saturday morning, with the top 12 competing in a final six-game round to determine the five bowlers for the stepladder, based on 24-game pinfall totals.