AJ Johnson Leads After Opening Round of USBC Masters
By Matt Cannizzaro, USBC Communications
RENO, Nev. - Team USA member AJ Johnson of Oswego, Illinois, is a far different bowler than he was six years ago when he finished second at the United States Bowling Congress Masters, and he took a big step toward proving that Tuesday as the opening-round leader at the 2021 edition of the prestigious event.
The 28-year-old right-hander started the day at the National Bowling Stadium with eight consecutive strikes and posted games of 251, 235, 243, 172 and 211, a 222.4 average, to lead the 216-player field with a 1,112 total.
He was followed in the standings by early leader Gary Faulkner Jr. of Memphis, Tennessee (1,103), Jason Sterner of Rochester, New York (1,101), Matthew Zweig of Scottsdale, Arizona (1,088), and EJ Tackett of Bluffton, Indiana, and Spencer Robarge of Springfield, Missouri, who are tied for fifth place with 1,083.
"The (40-foot) oil pattern is hard this week, and that was evident in practice, so getting off to a good start is always nice, especially when they're tough," said Johnson, a seven-time Team USA member. "My initial goal was to get comfortable and bowl well the first three games, because the matches are three games, and it was nice to be able to continue that momentum. I did struggle with the transition in Game 4, but I got myself back on track."
All rounds of qualifying and match play from the 2021 USBC Masters are being broadcast on BowlTV.com and simulcast to FloBowling, and the event will conclude live on Fox Sports' FS1 on April 4 at 2 p.m. Eastern as part of the Professional Bowlers Association Tour television schedule. The winner will take home $30,000.
After three days of qualifying, the top 63 players, based on their 15-game pinfall totals, will join defending champion Jakob Butturff of Tempe, Arizona, in the double-elimination match-play bracket.
Butturff finished the day in 71st place with a 980 total, but even if the left-hander finishes qualifying outside the top 64, he is guaranteed the final spot in the bracket as the defending champion.
Faulkner, also a southpaw, has enjoyed past success at the National Bowling Stadium, winning the 2015 PBA World Championship for his lone PBA Tour title, while Johnson's 2015 season included a bittersweet performance at the Masters that solidified his future career path, but left him with something to prove.
"That tournament was a huge steppingstone for me and my decision to make bowling a career after I graduated," Johnson said. "I'm definitely not the same player I was back then. I've learned a lot and taken in quite a bit from coaches, ball reps, friends and other players. I think I'm smarter and see things differently, and my game definitely is better."
Johnson was a senior at McKendree University when he rolled undefeated through the bracket to earn the top seed for the televised finals, before suffering a lopsided loss to Masters icon Jason Belmonte in the final, 202-157.
In the years since, Johnson has become a standout in the PBA Midwest Region, including player-of-the-year honors in 2017 and 2018, and he has enjoyed continued success with Team USA, winning four gold medals, one of which was a team win at the 2017 International Bowling Federation World Championships.
On the PBA Tour, he has continued to put himself in position to take home a title, but he only has a handful of runner-up finishes to show for it.
A breakthrough victory at the 2019 Korea Professional Bowlers Association DSD SamHo Cup helped him prove to himself and his fellow competitors he could get the job done, but the biggest win of his young career didn't count as an official PBA Tour title.
Ideally, the momentum he found Tuesday night at the NBS will continue and give him a chance to redeem himself at the Masters, a major on the PBA Tour.
Johnson's loss to Belmonte in 2015 gave the two-handed Australian his third consecutive win at the event, and he went on to win again in 2017 to become the tournament's only four-time champion.
The two are paired together this week in Reno, and that is adding extra motivation for Johnson.
"Bowling with the guy who's regarded as the best in the world definitely pushes you to be better," Johnson said. "We have a good relationship and a good respect for each other. We've even been able to have little conversations about what we're seeing and how we might want to break down the pair, and it means a lot to know he respects me enough to have those talks. I have the utmost respect for him, and I appreciate how supportive he has been to me over the years."
Belmonte, who has a record 13 major titles on the PBA Tour, is 30th after five games at the 2021 Masters with a 1,022 total.
Competition at the NBS will resume Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern with the week's second five-game round.
The Masters last was held in Reno in 2011, and this week's event is the first of two major championships being held in the Biggest Little City in the World.
The U.S. Open, at which Belmonte is the defending champion, will take center stage beginning the afternoon of April 4 with a pre-tournament qualifier. The long-format tournament will conclude live on FS1 on April 11 at 2 p.m. EDT.
The 2021 U.S. Open will be a collaborative effort between USBC and the Bowling Proprietors' Association of America, and the limited field will include the sport's best bowlers, most of whom earned their spots in the event based on their recent on-lane performances. The list includes leaders on the PBA Tour points list and top performers at USBC events and PBA majors.