Battling a lower-back injury, Wes Malott didn’t know if he would be able to bowl tonight, let alone how he made it through 42 games of qualifying. And yet, the Big Nasty found a way.

Malott advanced through the first play-in round of the unprecedented 17-player stepladder finals at the 2023 PBA Tournament of Champions.

At AMF Riviera Lanes in Fairlawn, Ohio, Malott defeated tonight’s top seed Kris Prather, the 2020 TOC champion, and TV debutant Tim Gruendler to advance to Saturday night's second round.

Before Malott’s first match, he choked up during an interview with FS1’s Kimberly Pressler. Malott said the amount of support he has received from his fiancée, kids, sponsors and fans as he has battled the injury, which has forced him to miss or withdraw from all four of the season's six events, has been overwhelming.

“To have that support, (the emotions) just caught me,” Malott said. “To even think that I'm standing out there on the TV set, and then at the end of it to have two wins under my belt and advance to the next show. I know I've made some TV shows in the last few years, but I couldn't tell you the last time I've actually won a match on TV.”

The injury forced Malott to be more upright at his release, which in turn created a higher release point and more loft.

“Most weeks, that loft probably wouldn't be very good,” Malott said. “But when you factor in the pattern and lane surface that we're on, which is a high friction surface, the lofting kind of worked in my favor.”

Prather, who was the top seed at last year’s TOC, began Friday night’s final match with a strike. But the two-time major champion only mustered two more strikes the rest of the way.

“The whole entire week I've had to dead pure it off my hand every single time to throw a strike,” Prather said. “I threw three good ones and they struck. The ones that were halfway decent just weren't good enough.

“I've struggled this whole entire week. (Finishing 14th) is nothing to complain about at the TOC, but I feel very disappointed with how I'm bowling and how poor my scores are.”

Malott’s veteran savvy proved monumental in the previous match against Gruendler, a rookie under the bright lights of national television. The Big Nasty tallied five strikes early in the match, while Gruendler, a 27-year-old St. Louis native, didn’t record a strike until the seventh frame.

“The transition definitely got me,” Gruendler said. “I just missed the big move left. I should have taken a huge step and out here, especially on these TV shows, you can't be scared to do that.”

Gruendler looked like a seasoned vet in his first match against three-time major champion François Lavoie. The Canadian needed a double and seven pins to advance — the exact same situation he conquered in the first match — but the 4-pin stood tall on his first shot in the 10th.

Lavoie’s hopes to replicate his 2021 TOC championship run — albeit with four times as many competitors — came to an abrupt end.

In the opening match, Packy Hanrahan wasn’t able to channel the luck of the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. The lone lefty among the 17 finalists fell to François Lavoie, dropping his career record to 0-6 on TV.


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The gargantuan stepladder finals continues on Saturday night. No. 12 seed Tom Smallwood awaits Malott in the first match of the second round at 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, while No. 8 seed Marshall Kent kicks off the third round at 9:30 p.m. ET on FS1.

Jason Belmonte, who holds the PBA’s all-time record with 14 major titles, looms in the third round. As does No. 5 seed Kyle Troup, who almost won the U.S. Open earlier this year from that exact position.

Tournament leader EJ Tackett, a three-time champion in 2023 alone, as well as the red-hot Anthony Simonsen await the advancer of Saturday’s competition. They, along with Matt Ogle and Jason Sterner, secured berths in Sunday's championship round at noon on FOX.

Round 1 Scores
No. 14 Wes Malott def. No. 13 Kris Prather, 211-171
No. 14 Wes Malott def. No. 15 Tim Gruendler, 222-178
No .15 Tim Gruendler def. No. 16 François Lavoie, 212-196
No. 16 François Lavoie def. No. 17 Packy Hanrahan, 214-210

Tournament Schedule

Saturday, March 18 | 7:30 p.m. on FS1

Advancer vs. No. 12 Tom Smallwood
Winner vs. No. 11 Chris Via
Winner vs. No. 10 Stu Williams
Winner vs. No. 9 Jake Peters

Saturday, March 18 | 9:30 p.m. on FS1

Advancer vs. No. 8 Marshall Kent
Winner vs. No. 7 Andrew Anderson
Winner vs. No. 6 Jason Belmonte
Winner vs. No. 5 Kyle Troup

Tickets are available for Saturday’s shows here.

Sunday, March 19 | 12 p.m. on FOX

Advancer vs. No. 4 Jason Sterner
Winner vs. No. 3 Matt Ogle
Winner vs. No. 2 Anthony Simonsen
Winner vs. No. 1 EJ Tackett

Sold out.

More information on the tournament is available here.