RENO, Nev. – It may be possible that the only thing at the National Bowling Stadium this week louder than one of Spencer Robarge’s outfits is his strike ball, and both are making plenty of noise during the 2021 United States Bowling Congress Masters, where the 18-year-old phenom is among the 16 undefeated players in match play.
The Junior Team USA member from Springfield, Missouri, finished 16th among more than 200 competitors to qualify for the event’s 64-player double-elimination match-play bracket. He won two matches Friday to remain unbeaten and in contention for the coveted title and $ 30,000 top prize.
Robarge dispensed of fellow amateur Barry Slater of Locust, North Carolina (603-486), and Venezuela’s Ildemaro Ruiz (669-499), and he now will face Canadian world champion Mitch Hupé, when competition resumes Saturday at noon Eastern.
“Being in this position feels really awesome,” Robarge said. “I had no real expectations coming in, since I’ve never bowled in this event before, but I definitely was hoping to make match play and get a check. This has been an amazing experience so far.”
Also among the undefeated players is a pair of past Professional Bowlers Association Players of the Year (EJ Tackett and Chris Barnes), 2016 USBC Masters champion Anthony Simonsen and a handful of other international standouts, including Thailand’s Kim Bolleby, Sweden’s Jesper Svensson, Thomas Larsen of Denmark, England’s Stuart Williams and Australia’s Sam Cooley.
Along with the 16 bowlers in the winners bracket, there are 16 competitors remaining in the elimination bracket. They also will hit the lanes at the NBS on Saturday at noon EDT, and that list includes four-time Masters champion Jason Belmonte, two-time U.S. Open titlist Francois Lavoie and 2018 Masters winner Andrew Anderson.
All rounds of qualifying and match play from the 2021 Masters are being broadcast on BowlTV.com and simulcast to FloBowling, and the event will conclude live on Fox Sports’ FS1 on Sunday at 2 p.m. Eastern as part of the PBA Tour television schedule.
Even at just 18, Robarge already has more television experience than most of the competitors this week.
He won the boys 12-and-under title at the Junior Gold Championships in 2015, added a pair of team victories at the USA Bowling National Championships in 2017 and 2018 and recently won the boys side of the inaugural PBA Junior National Championship – all under the TV lights.
Those experiences have helped the young two-handed southpaw handle the spotlight and pressure situations like a veteran, and while he has been known in youth bowling circles for his flashy attire, which he started wearing as a way to stand out while competing, he quickly is becoming one of the most recognizable players at any level.
Some of his inspiration comes from PBA Tour champion Kyle Troup, whose stock also is rising this year.
Troup picked up his first major title, and seventh win overall, at the 2021 PBA Players Championship, and he is the early front-runner in the player-of-the-year race.
Troup competed this week and is one of the 16 players remaining in the elimination bracket.
Robarge’s participation at the Masters this week was a last-minute decision.
As a member of Junior Team USA, he earned a direct entry into the upcoming U.S. Open, where he’ll be looking to improve on his 46th-place finish from 2020. When it was announced that the Masters and U.S. Open would be held together in Reno, he added his name to the waiting list. Shortly after, he received notification that he’d be able to bowl in both tournaments.
“I only planned on bowling in the U.S. Open, but when we heard both tournaments would be in the same place, it made sense to try to bowl in both,” said Robarge, who has rolled more than 40 USBC-certified 300s as a youth bowler, a USBC record. “All we really had to do was change some flights and hotel stuff, and here we are. It gives me another opportunity to bowl in a big event and have a chance at something special, while having some fun. At this point, I’m on cloud nine and will do everything I can to stay there.”
All competitors this week bowled three five-game blocks over three days, with total pinfall determining the 63 bowlers who joined defending champion Jakob Butturff of Tempe, Arizona, in the bracket.
At one point Friday, Robarge found himself looking at the large on-site bracket, both in awe, and for strategic reasons, as he looked ahead to where his journey this weekend might take him.
“I was looking at the bracket and thinking about my matches and what the possibilities would be, win or lose, but I also was just taking it all in,” Robarge said. “It’s a huge honor to be here, and I want to make the most of it.”
Robarge was one of nine non-professionals who made the cut this week. The last amateur to win the Masters was left-hander Brett Wolfe in 2002.
Match play will continue throughout the day Saturday, and the final five players will advance to Sunday’s live stepladder finals.
Butturff lost to Nathan Bohr of Austin, Texas, in the opening round, 608-536, defeated PJ Haggerty of Roseville, California, 612-565 and then exited the 2021 event at the hands of Mykel Holliman of Collierville, Tennessee, in a rematch of the 2019 title tilt, 730-702.
The Masters last was held in Reno in 2011, and this week’s event is the first of two major championships being held in the Biggest Little City in the World.
The U.S. Open will take center stage beginning Sunday afternoon with a pre-tournament qualifier. The long-format tournament will conclude live on FS1 on April 11 at 2 p.m. EDT. Belmonte is the defending champion at the U.S. Open.
The 2021 U.S. Open will be a collaborative effort between USBC and the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America, and the limited field will include the sport’s best bowlers, most of whom earned their spots in the event based on their recent on-lane performances. The list includes leaders on the PBA Tour points list and top performers at USBC events and PBA majors.