Magic Destined as 2023 USBC Masters Heads to Thunderbowl Lanes
It’s where Tom Smallwood’s Hollywoodesque, and later literal, story began. It’s where Jason Belmonte ascended into PBA lore with his 11th career major title, and where Chris Via shot his second televised 300 of the 2021 season. It’s even where Osku Palermaa lofted a ball to the moon and still struck.
It, of course, refers to Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park, Mich., the site of the 2023 USBC Masters and the third major of the 2023 Guaranteed Rate PBA Tour.
“It’s the most historic bowling center in Michigan,” said Andrew Anderson, who grew up an hour northwest in Holly.
No player has had more success at the Masters than Belmonte, who owns the record with four wins. He’s also won four times at Thunderbowl, including the 2014 Tournament of Champions and 2019 World Championship.
“It definitely feels like a special event when you walk into the arena bay,” Belmonte said. “It doesn't feel like a standard bowling center. It's just different for us players and I think that's one of the reasons why we do love that environment.”
Allen Park hosted the first ever World Series of Bowling in 2009, where Smallwood blossomed from local legend to PBA major champion. Though Smallwood officially won the 2009-10 World Championship in Wichita, Kan., every round before the telecast took place at Thunderbowl.
And it seemed like every fan in Michigan was watching, Anderson included.
“I knew of Smallwood (before the World Championship run); we actually only grew up about 40 minutes from each other,” Anderson said. “He was always unorthodox. He stood out in the crowd when he bowled. It really wasn't a surprise to those in Michigan who knew Smallwood, but the moment was just so big and for him to step up the way he did was really special. It ignited a lot of people's passion — not only in Michigan, but around the world.”
Anderson won the 2018 Masters en route to a Player of the Year campaign. A second career major title would be a career changer, moving him one title away from eventual Hall of Fame consideration, but winning a title in his home state would mean “everything” to Anderson.
“As much as I would love to win the tournament in Jackson, I think we both know the bigger one is the Masters at Thunderbowl,” he said. “That one would really hit home.”
Long before Anderson can even think of winning a major on his home turf, he’ll have to get past a two-time Masters champion in Anthony Simonsen. The 26-year-old is not only the defending Masters champion, but he won the last PBA Tour event at Thunderbowl at the 2021 PBA Tour Finals.
“The staff has always been so good to me and the rest of the PBA players while in town,” Simonsen said. “Detroit loves bowling and I can’t wait to go back and try to defend my Masters title there.”
With last season’s Masters win, Simonsen earned an automatic spot into this year’s 64-player match play bracket. With three-game matches on a single pair, the Masters places greater emphasis on preparation and gamesmanship. That’s where Simonsen believes he thrives.
“During a three-game set, so much can happen,” he said. “Being able to mentally stay in the match is a big help for the Masters.”
Because of the unique format, some players change how they attack the lanes based on their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.
“It's an element of the game that we don't get to do very often, that type of strategic thinking,” Belmonte said. “I enjoy breaking down the puzzle and trying to see what is going to work this set.
“It's one thing to find a line that you think is going to be great for your Game 1, but then how will that affect you Games 2 and 3? How will that affect your opponent? Will it benefit your opponent? Will it benefit you? Can you do something that will make it a little harder Games 2-3 for your opponent but also make it a little easier for you?”
Belmonte and Simonsen live on the precipice of bowling history. A pair of Michiganders in Anderson and Smallwood look to advance their Hall of Fame cases. And Dom Barrett is one Masters title shy of becoming the fourth Grand Slam winner in PBA history.
Add in the chaos of the bracket and mystique of Thunderbowl’s signature arena bay — something magical is bound to happen.
The USBC Masters returns to Thunderbowl Lanes from March 26 through April 2. Subscribe to BowlTV to watch qualifying and match play.