PRO BOWLING | LAKE COUNTY INDIANA CLASSIC
MERRILLVILLE | Michael Haugen Jr. is so comfortable bowling in Northwest Indiana that he high-fived a local resident he knows only as Gail after a crucial strike on Sunday.
Haugen's bond with the area paid off when he beat Wes Malott 247-239 in the Lake County Indiana Classic final at Stardust Bowl II. It was his first win in a 10-year PBA career after seconds at the 2005 Tour Trials at Stardust II and the 2006 Classic at Stardust I in Hammond.
"It's fitting that I won my first title here in Merrillville," Haugen said in an interview broadcast live by ESPN.
Haugen, 40, of Cave Creek, Ariz., was seeded 23rd before match play began in the five-day tourney. On Saturday, though, he advanced to the semis and on Sunday he beat Malott and Todd Book, edging Book 194-192 by knocking down two pins on his final throw.
In the final, Haugen led 128-110 after five frames, but trailed 199-187 after eight. Haugen was more emotional, particularly after a strike that would have extended his lead if he hadn't thrown spares in frames seven and eight while Malott threw strikes.
After his sixth-frame strike, he ran to the audience and high-fived Gail, who voluntarily kept his scores throughout this tourney.
"It was my way of thanking her," Haugen said. "I've known her for a couple of years."
Trailing after Malott's fifth consecutive strike in the ninth, Haugen threw four straight strikes in the ninth and 10th and clinched the win and $25,000 when his opponent's first throw in the 10th knocked down nine pins.
"It boggles everyone's mind how I didn't strike on that," Malott said. "It's a heartbreaker to throw a shot that good and not carry (the pins down)."
The crowd was enthusiastic for both bowlers, but Haugen said he felt a bond with Northwest Indiana's bowling fans because of his past successes. He was so exuberant after winning that he kissed the stunned women's champion, Joy Esterson, on the lips.
"I do feel comfortable here," he said. "The fans have taken a liking to me."
In the women's championship, Esterson threw three strikes in the 10th frame and then watched Liz Johnson, 33, of Cheektowaga, N.Y., throw three consecutive strikes to tie her at 226.
Esterson, 27, of Annapolis, Md., won the "roll-off" -- a tiebreaking 11th frame -- 10-7 to win the $10,000 first prize.
"I'm numb about the whole thing," said Esterson, a Forensic Science major at a Maryland community college who is glad that this year's restarting of the women's tour gives her two career options.