Player Analysis: Jason Belmonte & Anthony Simonsen in Major Tournaments

The cream always rises to the top at PBA majors. There is simply no such thing as a fluky major champion. The bracket format of the Masters leads to fresh faces making the show, but it takes considerably more than good fortune to reach the finals.

If you want to know who are the greatest bowlers in the world, look at who flourishes at the majors. Two men stand in a class of their own: Jason Belmonte and Anthony Simonsen. Time and time again, the two elevate their games when it matters most.

Belmonte famously owns the record for major titles with 13. The previous record, held by Earl Anthony and Pete Weber, was just 10. His legend transcends the sport of bowling, a revolutionary whose closest peer is Tiger Woods.

Simonsen, of course, cannot match the totality of Belmonte’s illustrious career, but the 24-year-old is building quite the resume for himself. At the 2016 Masters, Simonsen became the youngest player to win a major at just over 19 years old. He later became the youngest player to win two majors, defeating Belmonte himself in the title match of the Players Championship. He won the PBA Xtra Frame Gene Carter’s Pro Shop Classic using a back-up ball.

It feels like every time there is a major, the road to victory runs through the two-handed duo. Only once since 2020 has a major champion not defeated one or both of them in the stepladder finals. In fact, Francois Lavoie had to beat Belmonte and Simonsen in succession to win the Tournament of Champions this past Sunday.

Looking at every major since 2016, when Simonsen joined the tour full-time, the results speak for themselves. Belmonte leads all players with seven major titles, more than double the next highest player. Lavoie has three and the only other players with multiple majors are Simonsen and EJ Tackett with two apiece.

There is an important caveat in analyzing bowlers based purely on titles. Stepladder finals are a fickle beast; they make for entertaining television, but they don’t always capture who was the best bowler at a given event. For example, Jakob Butturff led the 2017 US Open by a record 617 pins over 56 games of qualifying and the 2018 US Open by 552 pins (third-most). He did not win either title. 

A more nuanced approach to measuring greatness is to look at championship round appearances or top-five finishes. Reaching the finals is one thing; making them consistently is another. This is where Belmonte and Simonsen separate themselves from the pack.

Player Top-Five Major Finishes
Jason Belmonte 16
Anthony Simonsen 11
EJ Tackett 8
Francois Lavoie 5
Marshall Kent 5
Five tied 4

Entering this weekend’s World Series of Bowling, there have been twenty-five majors since 2016. Belmonte has made sixteen television appearances and Simonsen has made eleven. Both players made the championship round in the same event nine times. Inconceivably, there were almost as many instances in which they qualified first and second (four) as missed the show (six).

Post-2019, the chasm widens. Belmonte entered the 2019 season one major shy of the record — he has since won four and advanced to nine of eleven championship rounds. Simonsen has one title and made seven telecasts himself. The two combine to make major TV shows at the same rate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, made free throws.

Belmonte and Simonsen are simply on another level than their competitors right now. They have each made six of seven major telecasts since 2020. Inevitably, they have faced off on a few occasions, each one being must-watch television. Their five matches are more entertaining than the Rocky series. (I’ve actually only seen the first one, so apologies, especially to my freshman year roommate, for being uncultured.)

Their first showdown took place in the championship match of the 2017 Players Championship. 20-year-old Simonsen sought to become the youngest player to win two major titles. However, Belmonte took down Simonsen, earning his seventh major title and commencing his run of utter dominance.

History was on again the line during their clash at the 2019 PBA Players Championship. Top-seeded Simonsen continued his quest to become the youngest player to record two major titles; Belmonte was chasing the record-breaking eleventh major title, just one week after tying the mark at the 2019 Tournament of Champions. In their most thrilling match to date, Belmonte entered the final frame with a slim, three-pin advantage. He needed a double and 8 pins to shut out Simonsen. 

Belmonte left a demoralizing pocket 7-10 on his first shot in the tenth, breaking the door wide open. Simonsen tripped out the nine-pin for a strike to secure the victory. He emphatically yelled out, “Give me one! Let me get one!”

Simonsen got the best of Belmonte again in their only non-title match at the 2019 US Open. Lavoie came away with the championship.

It’s a safe bet that every time Belmonte and Simonsen meet during a major telecast that some type of history is at stake. In the 2020 US Open championship match, 23-year-old Simonsen now sought to become the youngest player to win three major titles. Belmonte, having secured sole possession of the major title record, now aimed to complete the Super Slam and check the last box off on his resume.

The match remained close down the stretch yet again. This time, a wrap ten-pin in the ninth frame for Simonsen opened the door for Belmonte. The Australian needed a strike, then a spare to secure the title. He struck on the first ball before leaving the dreaded 3-6-9-10 on the second. It is routinely described as the toughest makeable spare for right-handers; tour players boast just a 65.7% conversion rate, according to the telecast. A spare secured the title, while anything less gave Simonsen a chance.

Belmonte spared it, earning his 12th career major title and becoming the second player ever to complete the Super Slam.

The two squared off most recently for the 2020 PBA World Championship in their fifth head-to-head major showdown. Simonsen opened with back-to-back splits and was never able to regain the lead, handing the rubber match to Belmonte. It was his 24th career PBA title and 13th major title.

There is nothing quite like a match between Belmo and Simo. Each one feels like a facsimile of Super Bowl LV between Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes — the GOAT versus the kid. Their rivalry is the best thing the sport of bowling has going.

Bowling fans, I’ll leave you with the same parting message that I did the last time I wrote about Belmonte, and this time it applies to Simonsen as well:

Do not take them for granted.

Belmonte, now 37, recently admitted that he does not see himself competing for the rest of his life. He often says that Simonsen will be the one to take the throne from him.

But for now, we get to witness two of the greatest bowlers to ever live battle mano-a-mano on a near-weekly basis. Enjoy it, for however long it lasts.

Credit to Nolan HughesCan’t Lose Hughes Sport

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