Posted on Mon, Nov. 17, 2003

French game bowls 'em over
The first-ever national petanque tournament attracts players from across the country and the curiosity of beachgoers.

THE WAY IT'S DONE: Five-time world champion petanque player Marco Foyot demonstrates the fine points of the game in Sunday's tournament on the Beach. RONNA GRADUS/FOR THE HERALD

For the French, it's part of everyday life. For Americans, it's a brand-new ballgame.

The first-ever national petanque tournament transformed the sandy shore behind Miami Beach's Riu Florida Beach Hotel into a playing field for American petanque teams.

Petanque, a French game where players take turns tossing or rolling nearly 2-pound steel balls as close as possible to a small target ball, has recently been making its way into American society.

''Everyone I have taught this game to has loved it,'' said Jo-Ella Manalan, a member of the South Florida Petanque Club.

Manalan, a high school French teacher in Riviera Beach who taught her students the game, requires that they speak French while playing.

Often compared to horseshoes and bocce, petanque can be played on just about any surface by children and adults. The first team to score 13 points wins.

Though the weekend-long event attracted 80 players from California, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, the teams from Florida say they have an advantage -- the yearlong warm climate.

''I play every day,'' said Steve Wagner of Seaside. The five Florida teams are based in Miami, Sarasota, Panama City, Kissimmee and Boca Raton.

Wagner, a 56-year-old graphic designer, was first introduced to the game four years ago by a French neighbor. Since then, he says, he's been hooked.

Although many French expatriates continue to play petanque in their American homes, the game wasn't largely marketed in the United States until the opening of Petanque America in 1991.

The company's founding president, Philippe Boets, said the game's emergence was long overdue.

''One out of two families in France have a set of boules [balls] in the back of their car,'' Boets said. ``This is a very leisurely sport that is good for all ages.''

Passersby, young and old alike, stood quietly alongside the 36-foot-long rectangular sandy courts, trying to make sense of the game.

Just steps away, two teams of two gathered on each court, hoping to win part of the $5,000 prize.

But for the players, the game is more about strategy than anything else.

''Some people say this is like horseshoes, but it's not,'' said Andre Strong, an antique dealer from Maine. ``More than anything, it's about the strategy of the game and the discussion between the players.''

In between games, young children and curious adults got a lesson from petanque world champion Marco Foyot.

Though Foyot only speaks French, his students took notice of his movements.

Leaning over slightly, he clutched onto the shiny silver ball with his palm positioned downward.

Then, he strategically eyed the tiny target ball and aimed for it.

Spectators watched in awe as the ball landed just inches away from its target.

Beachgoer Brigitte Grosjean, who had played the sport in France, was thrilled when she stumbled upon the event.

'I went swimming and walking and came across this by chance. I said, `Wow, petanque! I want to play.' ''