The Last Word

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

Sports history was made last week and it was greeted with all the fanfare of a one-armed spectator applauding.

The sporting world ogles Michelle Wie and Danica Patrick goes on Letterman and has her belly button stapled on every magazine from People to Sports Illustrated.

Annika Sorenstam makes men weak in the knees -- and that's before she even picks up a golf club.

They are women of distinction.

"I think every newspaper in the U.S. was there when Michelle tried to qualify for the U.S. Open. The irony of it is that she was trying to do it in my home state," Kelly Kulick says.

And, who, in the world of sports, is Kelly Kulick?

'NIKE HASN'T CALLED YET'

Kulick is what Wie is attempting to become. She is what Patrick is chasing, what Sorenstam failed to do. Last weekend, with the cream of journalism milking Wie's failed attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open, Kulick quietly became the first woman in modern history to earn a full-season exemption to play in a men's pro league -- the Professional Bowlers Association tour.

"Nike hasn't called yet but, hey, I'm hoping they find my phone number," the 29-year-old Kulick said this week from her father's Elizabeth, N.J. auto body shop. A girl who knows her way around a tool belt, all she needs now is a sponsor, like say the Maaco folks or Snap-On Tools, to find a good month for her on the promo calendar. "I guess I've broken a barrier ... maybe it'll take me down some roads I've never been."

A few days before, in a Chicago bowling alley, Kulick finished sixth in a qualifying tournament for the PBA tour.

No cameras. No photographers studying her body english. No national media to describe her mood. When it was over she just hopped in a car with her boyfriend and drove home. No groupies chased them into the 7-Eleven.

History in a vacuum.

Bowling doesn't make headlines. The sport at its grassroots has been displaced by video games, the internet and health clubs. At its pinnacle, its stars are celebrated from Milwaukee to Anonymityville, USA.

"Here I make sports history but you've got the Stanley Cup in hockey, the NBA finals are on, you've got Michelle trying to qualify for the men's U.S. Open, so it's like I made history -- becoming the first woman ever to qualify for a men's league and a week later people are just realizing something happened," Kulick says.

Such is life in bowling's fast lanes.

"It's low on the (sports) totem pole," Kulick admits. In the background are the whine of air guns and the clank of mechanics' tools bracketing the giggle of sport's Cinderella in coveralls. "Mostly I do paperwork, but I've been known to replace a bumper, or two," Kulick says.

She won the 2003 U.S. Open on the women's tour and thought she was going places then. But a couple months later, the Tour folded.

"I was crushed. I thought I'd arrived. I intended to stay on the women's tour as long as my body physically would let me. My heart was broken."

She never considered herself a pioneer of women's rights, didn't intend to knock down doors in the name of womankind. She and Martha Burk are about as close as a 7-10 split. All she wanted to do was go bowling.

She joined the PBA when it opened its doors to women in 2004. "I'm sure there's a few skeptics. I'm not going to turn everybody's head. I don't know whether they really believed I could make the Tour but from family, friends to gentlemen on the tour I've got nothing but calls of support."

Kulick tried to qualify in 2004 and 2005; failed twice.

Then, this year, came the qualifying tournament at Stardust Bowl in Hammond, Ind. She averaged 224.05 in 45 games -- earning a spot among the top 59 bowlers in the U.S. and a guaranteed $2,000 a week (plus purse money) from the PBA once the tour starts in October.

"To be honest, if I hadn't made the Tour this time my plan was to go back to school and work on my Masters in Education and take my career down a different path. This was my last shot," Kulick says. "So, here I'm going from one extreme where I'd just bowl for fun. Next thing I know everything is all stirred up; it's a total whirlwind and I'm going to tour the country with the best bowlers in the world. It's exciting. It's nerve-wrecking. It's definitely a challenge I'm eager to face."

Meantime, the phone has started to ring in Bill Kulick's garage and his daughter is starting to get an inkling that life may never be quite the same again. "I don't think it's sunk in yet ... the thing is if the women's tour hadn't folded, even if the PBA had opened its doors to women, I wouldn't have tried it."

KULICK'S KRUSADE

But circumstance has done what all of Wie's press agents and Patrick's Hollywood connections couldn't do -- it has put a woman into the forefront of male bastion. Kulick's Krusade this fall will take her to 20 cities in 20 weeks.

"On the women's tour, I could make a living off it," Kulick says. " I'd like to think I can do that on the PBA tour. I never intended to be here but I believe I can win here. I just want to bowl. It's what I've always geared my life towards. I'm just grateful to have a job again."


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