By Matt Cannizzaro, USBC Communications
Leaving the youth bowling ranks at age 17 to embark on a career on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour was a tough decision for Anthony Simonsen of Austin, Texas, but his continued success against the best bowlers in the world has shown him he chose the right career path.
Simonsen, who recently turned 20, is enjoying some major momentum entering the upcoming United States Bowling Congress Masters, where he is the defending champion.
The 2017 USBC Masters will take place Feb. 21-26 at The Orleans Bowling Center in Las Vegas.
Though he is guaranteed a spot in the event's 64-player double-elimination match-play bracket, Simonsen will bowl the 15 qualifying games with the same mentality he has for any tournament and work to improve his seeding in the bracket.
"It's going to be the same process as before or at any other event, but minus a little bit of pressure, since I've already got a spot in the bracket," said Simonsen, whose first PBA Tour title came at the 2016 Mark Roth/Marshall Holman PBA Doubles Championship presented by Storm, where he teamed with Connor Pickford. "Treating qualifying like I normally would also will help me get into tournament mode from the start, rather than waiting until match play begins."
Simonsen became the youngest bowler to win a major title on the PBA Tour when he claimed the 2016 Masters title, defeating Canada's Dan MacLelland, 245-207. Simonsen was 19 years and 39 days old at the time.
The victory was the start of an incredible streak, and Simonsen now has made the championship round in four of the PBA's last five majors. He has finished in the top 11 in seven of his 10 major appearances.
"I really enjoy the longer formats, and I know I'm capable of playing just about anywhere on the lane, which those events sometimes require you to do," Simonsen said. "I started slow last week (at the 2017 Barbasol PBA Players Championship), but the format gave me a chance to figure things out and get something going."
Simonsen went on to finish second at last week's event, losing to three-time PBA Player of the Year Jason Belmonte, the only other bowler to win the Masters since Mike Fagan claimed the title in 2012.
Belmonte's unprecedented run of Masters domination came to an end last year in Indianapolis just before a potential winners bracket meeting with Simonsen.
Instead, Simonsen met Wes Malott of Pflugerville, Texas, and defeated the 10-time PBA Tour champion to lock up a spot on the TV show. He then topped MacLelland in the match that determined the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds for the stepladder finals.
Three years ago, Simonsen felt capable and hopeful for that kind of success, but there was uncertainty, too. That didn't even include the logistics, like the fact that at 17, he wouldn't be able to rent a car or get a hotel room in the many cities to which he'd be traveling.
With the support of friends, family and some PBA Tour veterans, he made a seamless transition and found immediate success.
Now, when he feels off his game, he has endless support.
When he felt he needed a tuneup in January after the GEICO PBA World Series of Bowling VIII in Reno, Nevada, his ball rep and coach, USBC and PBA Hall of Famer Del Ballard Jr., was there to work with him.
Simonsen also can depend on his girlfriend, Anggie Ramirez Perea, a top competitor in her own right, who serves as a travel partner, confidant and cheerleader.
"We were able to work out a lot of the kinks, and then making the TV show really helped with my confidence," Simonsen said. "Having Anggie to travel with also is great, especially with her being a bowler. While I'm more of a ball rep and caddy when she bowls, I just enjoy knowing she's back there watching me bowl anytime she's not bowling, too."
Simonsen will battle a Masters field expected to be a sellout with more than 390 of the best bowlers in the world looking to capture the coveted trophy and $30,000 top prize in 2017.
All competitors at The Orleans will bowl 15 games of qualifying over three days to determine the match-play field. The top 63 players will join Simonsen in the double-elimination bracket, where he knows anything can happen during the three-game matches.
As the defending champion, Simonsen is guaranteed the No. 64 spot in the bracket, but bowling qualifying will give him a chance to improve his seeding, as well as get a feel for the bowling center and oil pattern.
The official practice day for the Masters is Feb. 20, which will be followed by three days of qualifying. Match play will take place Feb. 24 and 25 to determine the five players for the championship round.
Those five bowlers will compete in the stepladder finals, live on ESPN at 1 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, Feb. 26 which will be followed immediately by the live WBT finals.
The 2017 Masters will feature a total prize fund of nearly $300,000 and again is a major event on the PBA Tour.
All qualifying and match play rounds of the Masters will be covered live on Xtra Frame, the PBA's online bowling channel. For subscription information, visit PBA.com.