As the season-opening PBA Players Championship presented by Snickers crosses the halfway marker, Canadian Graham Fach sits in first place.

Fach averaged over 240 through 24 games of qualifying at Bowlero Northrock in Wichita, Kan. He tallied a total pinfall of 5,761 (+961) to lead the 88-player field as the field was trimmed to the top 24 players on Thursday night.

“I practiced a lot leading up to this tournament, probably more than I ever had before,” Fach said. “I just wanted to be ready. The confidence is always high when you feel like you’re ready, and I wanted to have that mindset.”

Fach won the 2016 Barbasol PBA Players Championship at 24 years old, becoming the first Canadian to win a PBA Tour title. He hasn’t won since.

“I want more than one (title). One feels like a fluke,” Fach said. “When I won early (in my career), it gave me imposter syndrome. In like 2017-2018, I couldn’t really back it up with many good tournaments. I feel now that I’m starting to put seasons of events together, that’s kind of fading away.”

Fach, now 32, said he doesn’t feel like he has anything to prove to anyone outside of himself and wants to appreciate the moment.

“I’m just going to enjoy what’s happened already,” Fach said. “I feel so good right now. I don’t think I’ve ever led after qualifying, so I’m going to let this soak in — but I’m going to be ready at 10 a.m. (Central). I want to keep the lead. I like seeing my name up there on the leaderboard. 

Tom Smallwood (+957), Bill O’Neill (+893), Tim Gruendler (+885) and Justin Knowles (+875) round out the top five.

Smallwood is coming off what he described as a career-worst season in 2023.

 “I didn’t cash in the first four events. I don't know if I've done that like ever,” Smallwood said of his 2023 season. “It was after the tournament here (in Wichita) last year where I switched to 14 pounds. Everyone was getting the ball through the front part of the lane easily and I thought if I dropped down a pound, maybe I could get 12-18 inches for free without trying to loft it.

“That’s kind of what turned my season around — and then I hurt my foot.”

After the weight change, Smallwood earned finishes of ninth in the PBA Jackson Classic, 13th in the PBA Tournament of Champions and seventh in the USBC Masters. He said he injured his right big toe during the first event of the World Series of Bowling XIV, which forced him to withdraw. In his final two events of the season, the pain was too much to bear and he struggled.

“That was deflating,” Smallwood said. “I felt like I was finally feeling good again. I felt like I was seeing the lane the right way. My ball was doing the right thing, and then I hurt myself just moving out of the way for someone.”

A few months of rest, followed by two months of rigorous practice has Smallwood competing at the top of his game again.

Two players inside the top 10 saw themselves on the brink of elimination on Thursday night.

Jason Belmonte, following a 176 in Game 20, fell outside of the cut into 25th place. He bounced back with games of 257, 278, 268 and 235 to climb into eighth place.

“You have to have a short-term memory,” Belmonte said, “and then you have to trick yourself into what you’re about to do and the move you’re about to make is the right one. You have to convince yourself. 

“Every time I feel like I’m in that clutch situation, I just seem to narrow my focus just a little bit more. I love being in that place.”

Belmonte’s former Roth/Holman PBA Doubles Championship-winning partner saw an even more meteoric rise. O’Neill shot 162 in Game 22, plummeting to 21st in the standings and only 30 pins inside the cut. Another game like that and his tournament would be over. 

O’Neill bounced back with 300, converted a spare, and hurled 11 more strikes for 290 to surge into third place.

Ryan Barnes, qualifying in seventh place, will be joined in match play by the 23rd-place qualifier, Chris Barnes. The father-son duo will meet in Game 6 of tomorrow’s first match play round, which begins at 11 a.m. Eastern Friday.

David Northouse earned the final berth in the match-play field at +744.

Anthony Simonsen (+681) missed the cut, marking his first finish outside the top 10 since July 2022.

Tommy Jones, who led qualifying after two rounds, also did not make the cut.

Advancing players will bowl three rounds of match play, with 30 bonus pins awarded to each match victor, to determine the five finalists for Monday’s stepladder finals. All rounds of match play will be livestreamed on BowlTV.

Tickets for Monday’s televised finals, which includes entry to the PBA Jr. National Championship finals, are available here.

Leaders after Qualifying Round 4

  1. Graham Fach, 5,761 (+961)
  2. Tom Smallwood, 5,757 (+957)
  3. Bill O’Neill, 5,693 (+893)
  4. Tim Gruendler, 5,685 (+885)
  5. Justin Knowles, 5,675 (+875)
  6. BJ Moore, 5,666 (+866)
  7. Ryan Barnes, 5,660 (+860)
  8. Jason Belmonte, 5,658 (+858)
  9. Anthony Lavery-Spahr, 5,633 (+833)
  10. Kris Prather, 5,632 (+832)

Full standings are available here.

PBA Players Championship Schedule

All times Eastern

Bowlero Northrock | Wichita, Kan.

Friday, Jan. 12
11 a.m. — Match Play Round 1 (eight games)
7 p.m. — Match Play Round 2 (eight games)

Saturday, Jan. 13
11 a.m. — Match Play Round 3 (eight games)
Cut to top five for stepladder finals

Monday, Jan. 15
5 p.m. — Stepladder finals