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Theyre playing Petanque in Westmoreland Park

by: David F. Ashton Tournament player Carla McClurg takes a windup to pitch her boule.

Ever wondered why about half of the grassy area behind Portland Lawn Bowling Club's building, in Westmoreland Park, went from green to gravel about nine years ago?

The answer is: Petanque.

Petanque (which is pronounced 'pay-tonk') isn't a turf disease. It's an outdoor sport, of French heritage, created in the early 1900s.

The Portland Petanque Club does meet every Sunday when weather permits - to play at the facility they share with the lawn bowling club, at the north end of Westmoreland Park.

The day THE BEE was there was a special day. 'Today, we're holding our first woman's tournament here,' the event's coordinator, Sandy Wygant, welcomed us. 'We have 17 players who entered the tournament.'

Ladies, playing in teams, pitched steel balls on the pea-gravel-covered fields, aiming at a small covered ball. 'In a nutshell, you want to roll your boule (ball) so that it's closest to the cochonette (jack),' explained Wygant. 'It's similar to most other bowling games.'

Tim Larson, President of the Portland Petanque Club, introduced himself, and provided technical information on playing, and details about the equipment used in the game.

Petanque players assume one of two positions, Larson began. 'The job of the 'pointer' is to get the ball as close as they can to the cochonette. The 'shooter' tries to shoot the other team's ball away from the cochonette. You begin play from wherever the cushiontte ended up last.'

The boule, we learned, can be made of brass, but it's typically made of steel - weighing from 680 to 800 grams. They're sized from 70 to 76 mm in diameter. (Since the game is of French origin, the measurements are Metric.)

As players launch their boule, they stand in a 50 cm circle. 'Originally we just drew a circle on the ground,' explained Larson. 'But now, we use a manufactured circle. It's simply called 'the circle'.'

After taking her turn, Wygant confided to us that she became curious about the game when she saw it being played as she rode by on her bicycle, enroute home to Eastmoreland, in 2009.

'What I've learned is that it's a good game for people of all ages. It's as much social as it is a sport - I've never been involved in sports, before starting to play Petanque.'

Although the game is simple, Wygant continued, it does involve concentration. 'Some people play all day, until the sun goes down; others stay for a single game. For me, it's a relaxing way to get outdoors and enjoy this beautiful environment.'

As Wygant went off to play another round, Larson talked with us about his own experience in the game. 'At first, you're focusing on getting your body to do physically, what you want it to do. Then, you start to learn the strategy. The combination of the social atmosphere, and growth in playing the game, brings people back year after year. One member has been playing for 50 years, after learning it in France.'

We watched as tournament player Carla McClurg crouched in the circle - that's the traditional stance for pitching the boule, we learned. 'My husband and I saw them playing in the Pearl District where we live, and asked if we could try it. That was four years ago, and we've been playing ever since. It's really a lot of fun, and inexpensive too; a set of boules costs about $60 - and they last forever!'

Across from the ladies are a group of men, also playing Petanque. Watching his teammates bowl, Eastmoreland resident Matthew Cohen - who is in his third year of play - said that he, too, likes the social aspect of the sport.

'I came across it quite by accident, walking through Westmoreland Park, on the same day they had a national championship here,' recalled Cohen. 'When I travel to visit friends or family anywhere in the country, I connect with a club. Even in a strange town, I'll find an instant group of comrades.'

All of the players extended invitations for passers-by who stopped to watch them, to come and try out the game. 'We're always happy to lend visitors boules,' Larson smiled. 'We're here on Wednesdays and Sundays [as weather permits], from noon till whenever people get tired and go home - usually four o'clock.'

To learn more, including watching videos showing how to play the game, visit their Internet website: www.pdxpetanque.org .