It is a curious feature of New Zealand how some families have become so associated with certain sports - the Hadlees in cricket, the Hurrings in swimming, and names like Clarke and Meads in rugby. When the talk turns to bowls, the name that immediately springs to mind is Skoglund.
The best-known of the Skoglunds is Phil, who was born in Palmerston North in 1937. He won eight national titles (including five singles) and his international career spanned a quarter of a century, from 1966-90. But there have been several others who helped make up the family bowls dynasty. Phil’s great grandfather laid the first bowling green on the West Coast, at Greymouth. His father, also Philip, was a top bowler as well as being a Cabinet Minister. His uncle Pete won five New Zealand titles, an Empire Games medal in 1950 and was a long-time national administrator.
Then Phil’s sons, Philip Jnr and Raymond, both rose to national level, Phillip representing New Zealand. More recently, his Tokoroa-based grandson Ryan Khan (also the grandson of women’s champion Millie Khan), earned national honours.
But it was Phil Skoglund who climbed the highest heights. He was an inaugural inductee in the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.
Skoglund was a sensation from the start. As a 20-year-old he shook up a game that tended to be dominated by older citizens by winning the national singles title in 1958. And he was still an outstanding player in 1990 when he picked up his third Commonwealth Games medal.
It seems Skoglund was always destined to be an outstanding bowler. He played his first national champs in Wellington when he was only 17, asked there by his grandfather, who wanted to field a team of Skoglunds of three generations in the fours. “Grand-dad was too old to play every day, but he got a special dispensation and we did play one day as a three-generation team, with Jack Rabone, a New Zealand singles champion, as our No 3,” Skoglund recalled.
When Skoglund won the singles in 1958, beating Stan Goosman with relative ease in the final, he caused a sensation, not only because he came from a well-known family, but because of his obvious talent. He won 15 straight games to take the singles crown.
“Despite my youth, I never felt any animosity towards me when I won that year in Christchurch,” he said. “That year my uncle won the fours and one of the papers called it the ‘Skoglund Saga’.”
Ted Pilkington, an Empire Games gold medallist in 1958, rated Skoglund and Ham Pirrett as the best players since World War II and there aren’t many who wouldn’t put Skoglund on the top rung. With so many good bowlers taking part in the nationals each year, Skoglund’s tally of eight national titles is formidable. Nick Unkovich and Gary Lawson now hold the record, with 10.
For nearly his entire adult life, Skoglund was a part of bowls, as a player, event organiser, councillor, selector. He clearly had unusual sports ability - he played senior club cricket and tennis and was a Palmerston North and Wellington basketball rep.
Yet he smoked, likes a beer or two at the end of a day on the greens, and tended towards the rotund. It was not the typical image of a New Zealand sports icon, but Skoglund’s record placed him alongside the giants in our other major sports.
He first represented New Zealand at a world bowls championship in Sydney in 1966, when he was seventh in the singles. He was fifth in the 1972 singles, gained bronzes in the pairs and fours in 1980 and a silver in the four in 1984.
But it was on the Henderson greens in 1988 that he really stuck finally struck gold in a world championship, being in the winning triple along with Morgan Moffat and Ian Dickison.
There were plenty of other highlights along the way, including a runner-up finish in the world indoor champs at Bournemouth in 1987. He played at five Commonwealth Games from 1970-90, finishing with a bronze in the fours (along with Kevin Darling, Stuart McConnell and Peter Shaw) in 1990.
Many felt he should have been given the singles spot for the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games. After all, he was the outstanding bowler in the country at the time, having won the national singles title an unprecedented three times in succession, 1970-72.
But his disastrous form at the 1970 Commonwealth Games told against him. “I had a shocking run at Edinburgh and won only two and lost 11.
“What I remember about those Games is the rain belting down, and the heavy greens. Over there they play right through the rain and I didn’t enjoy myself in the slush. I was wearing brown suede shoes and can still see and feel the water coming out the soles. I was very disappointed with myself. I let the conditions get to me.”
So for Christchurch he was selected with Bob McDonald in the pairs. They won 10, lost two and drew one to end up with the bronze.
“We lost to Wales that year, a crucial result. It was one of those games where luck plays a part. It was very tight near the end until with one shot they not only took out the jack, but also our back bowl. You could never have anticipated it, but it meant a difference of nine on the head, five for them instead of four for us. The Welshmen played a good shot, but certainly got maximum reward.”
In 1978, Skoglund again narrowly missed a Games gold, having to settle with silver in the four, along with Dave Baldwin, John Malcolm and Morgan Moffat. “We won 10, drew one and lost two. The gold was decided on a countback and we just missed out.”
Skoglund rates McDonald the most brilliant New Zealand bowler he’s seen. “Bob would be my No 1, but I always had a high regard for Percy Jones’ all-round ability. The others who stand out are Nick Unkovich, Peter Belliss and Rowan Brassey.
“Nick was an intimidating type of player, with his big driving, but shone more in a four than in singles.
“The best player I’ve ever seen was David Bryant of England. He was totally dedicated to bowls and had terrific confidence in his own ability.”
Skoglund and his wife Carol set up Skoglund Transport and Distribution in 1987. The demands of establishing then running his own business cut into the time he could devote to bowls practice and Skoglund gradually slipped from the top ranks of our bowlers.
But he remained an occasional entrant in the major events and was always one of the biggest drawcards.
He was awarded an OBE in 1988.