Match Play 1
RENO, Nev. – For the first time all week, there is a new leader at the U.S. Open.
Puerto Rico’s Cristian Azcona averaged more than 250 during the first eight games of match play Friday night at the National Bowling Stadium, including a 298 game, to surge into the lead with a 9,262 total.
His score includes 40 games of pinfall across four lane conditions and 30 bonus pins for each of his six wins in the opening round of matches.
It took Azcona 39 games to climb his way up the standings, and he settled in just ahead of left-hander Jakob Butturff of Tempe, Arizona, who is second with 9,258. Butturff was the leader after all three rounds of qualifying and the Cashers’ Round, which took place Friday morning.
Jason Sterner of Rochester, New York, is third in the standings with 9,208 and followed by Michael Davidson of Versailles, Ohio (9,139), and 2010 U.S. Open champion Bill O’Neill of Langhorne, Pennsylvania (9,101).
Sterner has bowled more than 80 games while in Reno, which included 43 games on the way to a fourth-place finish at the United States Bowling Congress Masters, along with the long format of the U.S. Open.
“It feels awesome to be in the lead, but I’m not really focused on it because there are a lot of games left against some of the best bowlers in the world,” Azcona said. “I just need to continue going through the process and taking it one shot and one game at a time.”
It took Azcona a game to get comfortable Friday night, but a quick reset after a 190 start led to an 844 run over his next three games.
Simply enough, the 42-foot oil pattern being used for the remainder of the tournament played differently than it did during the Cashers’ Round, and Azcona didn’t immediately see it.
“I went into match play with the same mindset and game plan as I did for the Cashers’ Round, and the lanes were hooking much less,” said Azcona, who has found international success while bowling for Puerto Rico. “Once I figured it out and realized I needed to slow my ball down quite a bit, it started seeing the pattern the right way, and good things started happening.”
Azcona, now a resident of Clermont, Florida, will lead the remaining 24 competitors back to the lanes Saturday for 16 additional games of match play on the same 42-foot oil pattern, which also will be used for the televised championship round.
Competition will resume with eight games at 1 p.m. Eastern, and the final eight matches at the Stadium will get underway Saturday night at 8 p.m. Eastern, after which the players’ 56-game totals, including 30 bonus pins for each win in match play, will decide the five players for the stepladder finals.
Each round of qualifying and match play at the 2021 U.S. Open is being broadcast live at BowlTV.com and simulcast on FloBowling.
The U.S. Open will conclude live on Fox Sports’ FS1 on Sunday as part of the 2021 Professional Bowlers Association Tour television schedule, airing from 2-4 p.m. Eastern.
The winner will take home the coveted green jacket and a $30,000 top prize, which would be the ultimate birthday present for Azcona, who turns 27 on Sunday.
Since the event is considered a major on the PBA Tour, a win would be historic for Azcona, whose victory at the PBA Xtra Frame Wilmington Open in 2018 made him the first bowler from Puerto Rico to win a PBA Tour title.
To add Puerto Rico’s first major victory would be immeasurably special for the right-hander.
“Of course winning the U.S. Open would be one of the most amazing birthday presents I could ever receive, and that’s the ultimate goal, but there’s no way I can think that far ahead right now,” Azcona said. “It also would mean so much to me to do it for everyone back home. Growing up on the island, I know how tough it is bowling-wise, so to be able to be here showing the kids what’s possible means everything. Being able to do things like this, and knowing I have the support of everyone back home, is so special.”
Azcona’s journey to the PBA Tour is one he charted when he was very young. He knew he wanted to bowl collegiately and then make a name for himself on the PBA Tour.
He even took summer classes to help finish high school ahead of schedule, and he promptly headed off to Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, where he helped the Lions to a win at the 2014 Intercollegiate Team Championships. That event was held down the street at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
This week in Reno, Azcona never has been outside of the top 15, finishing each round 11th, 12th, 13th, tied for seventh and now first.
It took an average of 215.75 to make match play Friday, and the final spot went to former Junior Team USA member Brent Boho of Indianapolis, who finished his 32 games with a 6,904 total.
Defending U.S. Open champion Jason Belmonte of Australia also made the top 24, qualifying 11th, and he finished the first round of match play in 14th place with an 8,898 total. He posted a 5-3 record.
The 37-year-old two-hander is in search of a record 14th major victory and is looking to become the first bowler in 25 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title.
Only four bowlers – Andy Varipapa, Don Carter, Dick Weber and Dave Husted – have won the event in back-to-back years. Husted was the last to accomplish the feat, doing so in 1996.
The majority of the competitors this week earned direct entry into the event based on their on-lane performances throughout 2020, while 43 bowlers advanced to the 108-player field through Sunday’s eight-game pre-tournament qualifier.
All competitors this week bowled 24 games of qualifying across three oil patterns, before total pinfall determined the 36 bowlers who advanced to Friday morning’s Cashers’ Round.