The Gambler: John Handegard

By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published on

John Handegard had seen this before. A 20-something PBA Tour upstart grips the tournament trophy while Handegard packs up his gear, another week behind him, and gone with it another chance at trading in his day job at the plywood mill for a life chasing dreams around the country on Tour.

This week, the “upstart” is Wayne Chester, and this will be the only PBA title he ever wins. He turns to smile for the flashing cameras, and tells the man holding the microphone that this is a “dream come true.”

Chester has captured that dream at just 25 years old; Handegard, who came in second, is 40. His dream will wait another 17 years.

It will wait through two divorces, through difficult phone calls with sponsors whose cold feet sent him back to the plywood mill, through the day he was down to his last $2 after paying entry fees to several PBA Senior Tour events in 1991.

By then he will already be two titles into a ferocious charge for glory on the PBA Senior Tour, a run in which he will capture 14 Senior titles in eight years and become the oldest player to win a title on the regular PBA Tour.

He will also hail from Las Vegas, a place for people who know that dreams come to those who are willing to gamble on them.

Handegard is a man who is not afraid to gamble and, like most gamblers, he has lost far more than he has won. In fact, Handegard’s story is one of decades of losses, of starting over, of resigning himself so completely to disappointment that he no longer even owned a bowling ball.

When he steps to the podium in Arlington, Texas, on May 12 to be inducted into the United States Bowling Congress Hall of Fame, it is the gambler in him that he will have to thank above all, the one who brought him to the brink of ruin so many times for a taste of the glory he attained only after so many failures.

After all, this is the John Handegard who spent one of those stints of resignation working as a “professional slot machine player” in Vegas.

“I had gone back on Tour and came home broke again. A guy I knew in Los Angeles told me he was playing the slots for a living,” Handegard recalls of those days. “If the numbers were right, we would play these machines until they hit. I did that for a couple of years. I enjoyed it. Of course, I quit bowling again at that time.”

But no slot machine could bring him the jackpot he struck when he spent himself down to his last two bucks on entry fees for a handful of upcoming Senior Tour events years later. No amount of money would appease his hunger for the title of “champion.” Now, thanks to the biggest gamble he ever made, he would wear that title for the rest of his life.

“I went from being bone-dry to having a $21,000 bankroll eight days later,” he said of winning two of the four tournaments he paid to enter.

But Handegard knows as well as any Vegas dreamer that most gamblers end up lighter in the pocket by the end of the night.

The thrilling conclusion to the most historic match in John Handegard’s career. Hall of Famers Earl Anthony and Mike Durbin with the call.

That is the lesson he learned when he called the plywood mill to let them know he would be back from vacation a day late because he made the championship round at the 1978 Salt Lake City Open, only to cough up his 222-pin lead to Chester and return home to find that they don’t keep dreamers on staff at the plywood mill. The late return from Salt Lake City cost him his job.

“It’s tough to hold a job,” Handegard would concede in a 1994 interview with Bowlers Journal. “Where can I get a job that will allow me to bowl?”

For Handegard, the answer to that question turned out to be quite simple: You can’t. And so he hit the road yet again, this time with a new wife. He married Sue Handegard on a Thursday morning in 1981; that night he would shoot 300 to make the finals at the Fair Lanes Open in Baltimore.

But if you think this is where the happy ending happens, you’re about to be disappointed.

“That was one of the few Tour highlights they shared at the time,” Lyle Zikes wrote in a 1990 profile of Handegard.

“We went back home,” Sue Handegard said years later. “Actually we didn’t go home because he didn’t have a job or anything. So we stopped at a friend’s house in Las Vegas. That’s where we started over.”

John Handegard has started over about as often as he has started his car. His new wife, Sue, would soon become his ex-wife, and the burgeoning pro shop he ran with her in Vegas would soon take second place to news of the PBA Senior Tour’s inception in 1983.

John Handegard is 45 years old then. The gambler in him is still alive and well and ready for another shot. This time, it would almost certainly be his last — just the kind of stakes any true gambler dreams of.

“He began shoeing up again his way,” Lyle Zikes wrote, “meaning full-tilt leagues, local scratch events or anything of the kind.”

But this is no Rocky movie. In Handegard’s life as in any other, the plot doesn’t fall quite as neatly into line as it tends to on the big screen. Handegard’s next stab at the Tour began a lot like the previous one ended: with no check at the end of the week. And even after scoring back-to-back titles in 1990 in Hammond and Battle Creek, where finally he felt what Wayne Chester felt that day in Salt Lake City, the slump that followed was enough to scare his sponsor off for good.

“I tried to prepare him for periods when I wouldn’t make any money,” Handegard explained later. “He seemed to understand, but when I got to Toledo in March, he dumped me.”

But there was no understanding John Handegard, no understanding what exactly it was that kept him coming back to the Tour despite decades of struggle there, no understanding how it is possible that the man who made a grand total of $476.25 per tournament in 166 events over the years became the winningest player on the Senior Tour.

“I was flat broke in Vegas this past spring,” Handegard said in 1991, “and if somebody had told me then where I’d be today, I would’ve had difficulty believing him.”

So would everyone else. But that’s exactly where this story of a dreamer’s bad gambles and years of dead-end jobs really does start to resemble a Hollywood script.

Handegard undoubtedly had that cold-footed sponsor biting his fist in frustration as he watched his former client bag three titles in 1991 alone, when he cashed in 11 of 12 events and broke a Senior Tour earnings record with a season’s income of $52,170.

He would repeat that PBA Senior Player of the Year performance by earning the award in 1995 and 1996 as well, bring his record PBA Senior Tour earnings up to $404, 096 with his final Senior title at the PBA Senior Tournament of Champions in 1998, and stand to this day as the greatest player in PBA Senior Tour history.

But no amount of success could have prepared him for the day he squeaked by Walter Ray Williams Jr. by just a pin in the position round of the 1995 PBA Northwest Open to make his final appearance on a regular PBA Tour telecast at 57 years old.

“As I was walking from the paddock to the lanes to go on air, I thought about the lineup of bowlers in front of me and concluded that neither I nor any other human being would have much of a chance,” Handegard recalled months after that historic win. “Just think —Mike Aulby, Norm Duke, Bryan Goebel and Mark Williams.”

Yes, just think: That’s three Hall of Famers and a player in Bryan Goebel whose 10 titles might someday get him into the Hall as well. But today it is not those four legends anyone thinks of when they recall the events of that afternoon. Today, the record that Handegard set there still stands: He remains the oldest player to win a title on the regular PBA Tour.

“This proves once again that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish that counts,” Hall of Famer Gene Stus told reporters after losing to Handegard in the title match at the 1998 PBA Senior Tournament of Champions.

That’s a good thing, because on May 12 the way Handegard will finish is as one of the newest members of the USBC Hall of Fame, and all those years at the plywood mill and on the road will count as little more than the bad start to a remarkable career.