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Breaking Down Oil

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Bowling alley
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A common phrase in bowling circles is “breaking down the oil” or “as the oil breaks down,” but it’s not fully understood by a lot of bowlers. Understanding how oil breaks down—and that it breaks down—is a very important aspect in improving your game.

For the sake of clarity, we’ll use the house oil pattern as an example here. A house oil pattern is 32 feet long and buffed to 40 feet. From the foul line to the head pin is 60 feet, so when a lane mechanic applies a fresh oil pattern, there’s 20 feet of dry lane past the oil.

The house pattern gives bowlers a wide margin of error. Because of the bulk and placement of the oil, it guides even decent shots toward the pocket rather than forcing perfect shots.

However, even with a house pattern, the oil changes and forces bowlers to adjust.

The Oil is Not Impenetrable

Bowling oil is not just a lane coating. It can move. It can stick. Have you ever noticed oil on your ball when it returns after throwing a shot? The oil moves around as your ball pushes it around.

Because of that, a bowling oil pattern is never the same from one shot to the next, assuming the ball touches any part of the lane.

Consider a fresh oil pattern. The oil extends from the foul line to 40 feet down the lane. Imagine throwing a ball perfectly straight down the middle of the lane. When it hits the 40-foot mark, it exits the oil, but it has dragged some oil with it. Now, there’s a little oil a couple inches past the 40-foot mark.

Throw another ball. More oil comes out the back. In tournament or league play, when multiple bowlers are playing multiple lines, oil is being pushed around in every direction. Spots 10 feet down the lane dry up and parts of the lane near the pin deck get slick.

Mysterious Oil

Sometimes, you’ll be bowling a great game with a consistent line to the pocket, and then suddenly your ball skids rather than hooks and misses the head pin. Where’d that oil come from?

Even when you establish a good line to the pocket, you (and the other bowlers) are pushing oil all over the lane, and sometimes it gets in the way of your line. In fact, many pros and top amateurs will intentionally throw shots to get in their opponents’ lines from time to time.

The best bowlers learn to anticipate when something like this will happen and adjust before they make a mistake.

Beginner Advice

You shouldn’t expect to be able to anticipate when the lane conditions are changing until you have a lot of experience. However, you can take note of what you see happening with each shot you take. If you throw a few strikes in a row and suddenly start missing left, the oil likely moved and you have to adjust to it if you want to keep up your good game.

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