Shirts vs. skins: Russ Hornby awaits his turn while Dan Culican winds up to make a toss in a Bola tournament, the all-the-rage lawn game invading Bayberry. BRITTNEY CULICAN PHOTO
Bola goes by many names. Ladder golf is the commercial name for the game, but dedicated bolistas tend to turn up their noses at those who purchase their Bola sets. Real Bola enthusiasts make their sets out of PVC (as in polyvinyl chloride) pipe fashioned in their own basement or garage. Other players like to call the highly competitive game Horse Nuts, Testicular Golf, Polish Horseshoes or Boom Balls.
According to local aficionado Brittney Culican, the game might even be played professionally in the Netherlands.“We just made that up one night because it sounded good; it’s not necessarily factual,” she said. While she’s a highly ranked player, Culican is for the moment keeping her day job teaching photography at Fayetteville-Manlius High School.
For about $20, an amateur with a circular saw, a tape measure and a can of cement can cobble together an acceptable regulation Bola set consisting of two three-rung ladders attached to PVC stands, each set up 16 feet apart on a lawn. Then visit your favorite Wal-Mart store to buy 12 golf balls, six of one color and six of another; drill a quarter-inch hole in each one, and join them by a cord 16 inches long. Opposing two-person teams take turns flinging the paired balls at the ladder, with the goal of wrapping the set tightly around the rungs.
Hitting the top rung is worth three points, lassoing the middle rung two, and the bottom rung, which can be hit on a fly or on a bounce, counts, as you might guess, for one point. The points of one team can cancel out those of their opponents. So if you score six points and your opponent scores, say five, you end up with one point. As in blackjack, 21 takes the match, and—here’s the catch—you can’t go over. If you and your partner score more than 21 on a given play, the points from that play are deducted from your score, and you go backward. It can go on for a long time.
If you are really good, you can get bonus points by scoring a “Bola,” that is, you manage to dangle a pair of balls from each of the three rungs. If you were the kid who had his sneakers stolen, knotted together and tossed over an electric line, forever to remind you of that moment of humiliation, Bola may be your chance for redemption.
Bola tournaments tend to be all-afternoon or all-evening affairs, so there is typically food, music and beer. “Traditionally it’s more of a redneck kind of sport,” commented Culican, “so somebody thought it would be a good idea to put on country music. But there are a lot of people who enjoy backyard games and drinking, but not the country music. Personally I think it’s an ’80s rock, tank tops, cut-off jeans shorts type of game.”
The game is remarkably safe, and Culican could only recall one injury. “I did hit my father in the face the first time I played,” she noted. “He wasn’t paying attention and didn’t get out of the way in time.”
Participants at the Culican First Annual Classic Bola Tournament on July 12 stalked the pitch on Cardinal Path in suburban Bayberry wearing T-shirts with iron-on transfers boasting slogans such as “Bola—an international obsession.” “That’s because in our neighborhood we have one guy from England and a woman from Canada,” said Culican. Another T-shirt spoke to the contagious nature of the game: “Bola—The Virus you Want to Catch.” Some slogans were more organic. “Wrap ’em tight,” for example. Or “Get a set and play.”
On this steamy afternoon, environmental scientist Dan Culican, who works by day at EA Engineering, and his game partner, Beth McDougall Edgar, a teacher’s aide, staged what observers called the greatest comeback in Bola history. Down 19-1, Culican, despite his homecourt advantage, seemed about to be consigned to the infamous loser’s bracket when his opponents, past and future friends, choked beneath the midday sun.
Culican hit a pair of bolas over the course of the match, took down the challengers by a final score of 21-19 and went on to win the tournament, defeating his wife Brittney, and his next-door neighbor Russell Hornby, aka “Big Russ,” a nurse at Crouse Hospital. “Very depressing,” noted Brittney Culican. “It was really devastating. I never expected to get that far, but once I did, I really wanted that trophy.”
The winners walked away with a PVC trophy specially designed by Brittney Culican’s kid brother Brian and $60, the lion’s share of the kitty created by the $5 entry fee paid by each participant. “I really hope the Kenyans don’t catch on to it,” said the second-place Culican. “They’re already winning all the prize money from the Boilermaker.” Britney added that she hopes to “singlehandly make this the Olympic sport of backyard games.”
The roots of Bola apparently go back to Spain, when gauchos used similarly strung balls to entangle the feet of cows and horses. The Culicans learned about it from Patty McKenna, an officer and proud member of Liverpool BPO Elks Lodge 2348. As best we can tell, McKenna imported the sport from Virginia where her retired father makes homemade Bola sets and sells them to the local hardware store. “My father got me into it,” McKenna noted. “He gave me a set. We had it at my house for a party and everybody started playing it.”
McKenna, who lives next door to the Elks Lodge, invited the Culicans to organize a tournament on Thursday nights throughout the summer. Brittney Culican, Bola’s leading evangelist in Central New York, rose to the challenge. “This is my current obsession,” she said, inviting everyone to come on down. “It’s line draw: You don’t know who your partner is going to be.” Asked about the legality of this form of gaming, she insisted, that it must be legal, “’cuz they do the same thing with darts. If they do it with darts, you can do it with anything.”
And what is the great attraction of Bola?
“It doesn’t take any athletic ability,” said Culican, who is also known for her dead-on Janis Joplin impersonations.
The day’s adventure was over and the sun was still visible in the sky when the trophy for the first annual Culican Bola tournament was awarded by 8:30 p.m., but such is not always the case. Bola enthusiasts report matches that have gone on until nearly 4 a.m.; multiple beer runs are not uncommon. On this day in Bayberry, families were encouraged to participate, and a neighbor’s pool was set up to allow children to swim under the watchful eyes of a designated lifeguard so parents could concentrate on hoisting their tethered balls into the suburban sky.
McKenna thinks the whole Bola deal is a ball. “On Thursday nights at the Elks Lodge we have a snack shack and it’s kinda open to the public. It’s a big night down here. We have a gorgeous lawn. A nice piece of property. They started this tournament and all of a sudden people are asking, ‘What’s Bola?’ It’s played all over; it’s not like anything we invented. It’s a great game; people have picked up on it. Some of the older people line up in their chairs to watch. We’ve got five sets set up.”
And what is the preferred beer for Bola players? Without hesitation, McKenna replied: “Cold.”