PLANO, Texas - Stefanie Johnson captured her first career major championship Saturday by winning the 2018 QubicaAMF Professional Women's Bowling Association Players Championship.
Johnson defeated Kelly Kulick of Union, New Jersey, in a tightly contested title match at Plano Super Bowl, 230-200, to claim the $20,000 top prize. The finals of the PWBA Players Championship, the third major of the 2018 season, was broadcast live on CBS Sports Network.
Johnson, a 34-year-old right-hander, took advantage of two fortunate strikes in the early going to start with four consecutive strikes but was unable to mark on the left lane in the fifth and seventh frames, letting Kulick even the match.
A strike in the eighth frame led Johnson back to her troublesome lane in the ninth, but she executed one of the biggest shots of her career to reclaim the advantage with a double.
"I obviously was a little lost on the left lane," said Johnson, the 2015 PWBA Rookie of the Year. "I had a couple of good breaks and bad breaks, but I took an extra second and told myself to execute and trust my process to make a good shot to set myself up for the 10th. That's what happened. It was a game-changing moment for me."
Kulick, who was the runner-up at the PWBA Players Championship last year in Green Bay, Wisconsin, ran into trouble in the ninth frame after making a jump to the left, leaving a 7-10 split. She was able to double in the 10th frame to force Johnson to mark to win her third PWBA Tour title, and Johnson delivered her third consecutive strike to win.
Johnson struck on six of seven shots on the right lane and relied on trusting her judgment in using a new bowling ball in the title match.
"We noticed the left lane was hooking a little more, so I took out a ball at the last minute on the practice pair to see what it looked like," said Johnson, a 14-time Team USA member. "It looked really good, so it was the first ball I tried on the TV pair. That ball never really saw the lanes during qualifying, but that was my key to success the entire week. Quickly making bold moves, trusting my instincts and really committing to it."
Johnson's win came in her third championship-round appearance this season. She has advanced to the finals in each of the three majors in 2018, including a runner-up finish at the U.S. Women's Open in June.
The win not only was special for breaking through for her first major, but also for being able to collect the victory in front of a hometown crowd, including family and friends. Johnson lives in nearby McKinney, Texas, and works at Plano Super Bowl.
"I haven't really processed it yet, but I know it's amazing," Johnson said. "To win this in front of my home crowd and family and on my home lanes is going to be at the top of my list of accomplishments."
Kulick made her first championship-round appearance of the 2018 season this week, and the effort helped her solidify her spot in the season-ending PWBA Tour Championship next month.
She was able to make her run at Plano Super Bowl after sharpening her physical game last month during Team USA camp at the International Training and Research Center in nearby Arlington, Texas.
"I had some really good physical keys from what I worked on at Team USA camp, and it really helped all week," said Kulick, a six-time major champion. "I was really patient on the lanes this week. Against Stefanie, I needed to move in front of the ball return on the right lane one frame earlier. The 7-10 was a bad break. I knew what I needed to do going into the ninth frame, but sadly, it felt like there were 11 pins in the rack instead of 10. The moral of the story is that I did my job today, but it just didn't happen to be enough."
Kulick defeated Danielle McEwan of Stony Point, New York, in the semifinal, 224-206. Kulick took the early advantage after starting with five consecutive strikes but let McEwan back in the match after a 3-6-7-10 split in the eighth frame.
McEwan, a four-time PWBA Tour champion, rolled four consecutive strikes starting in the sixth frame but left a 10 pin to start the 10th frame to end her comeback.
The semifinal match also had implications in the race for PWBA Player of the Year. McEwan needed to advance to the title match for the opportunity to challenge Shannon O'Keefe of Shiloh, Illinois, for the coveted award at the Tour Championship, but her third-place finish mathematically gave O'Keefe the distinction for the first time in her career.
O'Keefe, a 39-year-old right-hander, won two titles this season, including the United States Bowling Congress Queens in May.
"It means the absolute world to me," said O'Keefe, who owns eight PWBA Tour titles. "All the hard work, dedication, the tears, the frustrations - it's all worth it. I feel I've been knocking on the door, and I've had some really good seasons. Last year, I finished third, the year before that was fifth. I've been climbing that ladder and knocking on the door. I just feel player of the year is something people always will remember in your career. I have bucket-list items that I'm trying to check off and that was just one of them. So, to be able to mark that off, I can move on to the next thing."
Kulick advanced to the semifinal after starting her match against 2018 PWBA Rookie of the Year Jordan Richard of Tecumseh, Michigan, with seven consecutive strikes, finishing with a 244-171 win.
Richard, a 22-year-old right-hander making her fourth consecutive television appearance, locked up Rookie of the Year this week.
In Saturday's opening match, Richard delivered 10 strikes on her way to a 244-156 victory over Lindsay Boomershine of Perry, Utah.
Boomershine, who was making her second consecutive championship-round appearance at the PWBA Players Championship, needed to win her first match in order to earn enough points to advance to the Tour Championship.
With Boomershine's fifth-place finish, Shannon Pluhowsky of Dayton, Ohio, earned the final spot at the Tour Championship from the points list.
All competitors at the PWBA Players Championship bowled 18 games of qualifying Thursday to determine the 18 players advancing to round-robin match play.
Friday's match-play rounds featured 18 games, including a position round. Players received 30 bonus pins for each win and 15 bonus pins for a tie. After 36 games, total pinfall, including bonus pins, determined Saturday's finalists.
All rounds leading up to the stepladder finals were broadcast on BowlTV, the official YouTube channel of USBC.
The QubicaAMF PWBA Players Championship was the third of four major championships on the 2018 PWBA Tour schedule, and the final event before the season-ending PWBA Tour Championship.
The PWBA Tour Championship will take place Sept. 16-19 at Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Virginia.
The PWBA Players Championship only was open to PWBA members.