PALISADES PARK — For a game that is far from familiar for most Santa Monicans, Mark Greenberg and his boules are starting to attract some attention.
It’s Friday morning in Palisades Park and with the iconic Santa Monica Pier providing the perfect backdrop, pairs of tourists and locals in the middle of their workouts stop and stare as Geenberg crouches inside a small circle drawn in the sand. He pulls his arm back and lets fly a shiny metal boule (French for ball), sending it roughly 15 feet into the air. It lands in the dirt with a thud and rolls a foot toward a small, orange target.
Greenberg is pleased, not with the shot, but with the number of onlookers intrigued by the retired photographer’s favorite pastime.
“I’ll give you a sheet here that explains the rules and tells you a little bit about the game,” Greenberg said with a noticeable Brooklyn accent as he walked toward two men dressed in casual business attire.
The game is pétanque (pronounced pay-tonk), one of Europe’s most popular outdoor games — a cousin of both horseshoes and of the Italian bowling game called bocce. And to say that Greenberg is a player would be grossly understating things.
Greenberg is Santa Monica’s pétanque ambassador, having lobbied the powers that be at City Hall — thanks in large part to his friendship with the late mayor, Herb Katz — to recently replace the aging and rarely-used shuffle board courts near the Senior Center with two pétanque courts, which are free and open to the public from 5 a.m. to midnight every day.
“I’m addicted to this,” said Greenberg, a former instructor at Santa Monica College who tore up grass in the backyard of his home near the college so he could practice pétanque.
“No two games are ever the same and each time I play it makes me want to get better. It’s a lot of fun and the best part is, anybody can play, from the novice to the professional.
“I’ve had an 8 year old beat me and a 91 year old beat me,” Greenberg says as he looks out onto the Santa Monica Bay, the sun reflecting off the Pacific Ocean.
The accessibility of the game is one of the main reasons why the Community & Cultural Services Department chose pétanque when it came to replacing shuffleboard, a game that seems to have fallen out of favor.
“Shuffleboard has to be played on a very level surface and because the courts were located on the edge of the bluffs they settle a bit, constantly creating a problem with keeping them level,” said Julie Silliman, a senior administrative analyst with City Hall who specializes in building and maintaining Santa Monica’s parks.
That and a lack of interest by the senior community led to the courts not being used.
“And, my God, isn’t it such a beautiful spot? It should be used,” she said.
It was shortly after City Hall renamed the Joslyn Park dog area after Katz, a man who loved his dogs, that Silliman got the idea for pétanque courts. She had seen Greenberg in the park practicing and after the dedication he approached her and planted the seed. He also admits to reaching out to other City Council members and the city manager.
Greenberg envisions more than just a few courts. He would like to have Santa Monica become the pétanque capital of the U.S., hosting tournaments in the parking lot just north of the pier that would attract players from all over the world.
“It could bring in millions of dollars,” he said.
The International Pétanque Tournament in November at Amelia Island, Fla. attracted players representing over 100 teams from 25 states, Canada and Europe.
“There’s plenty of interest here and it’s growing,” Greenberg said.
City Hall spent a little over $5,000 fixing up the space and creating the pétanque courts, Silliman said, and there should be fairly little maintenance required. The courts are essentially just raised dirt framed in concrete.
“A great thing about the game is that it is very casual, you don’t need to be dressed all in white or have an outfit to play,” Silliman said. “And the equipment is pretty inexpensive.”
The game originated in the South of France in the early 1900s and is gaining in popularity in the U.S. with an estimated 30,000 Americans playing on a regular basis, according to Petanque America.
But other than Santa Monica, there are only a handful of other places to play. There are courts at Rancho Park Golf Course and at the Cheviot Hills Recreation Center, according to the Los Angeles Pétanque Club, of which Greenberg is a member.
“I’m still in awe,” said Greenberg of the picturesque location of the city’s pétanque courts.
The game is fairly simple. There’s a target, or cochonnet (French for piglet), and the objective is to stand inside a circle and toss or roll weighted balls at it, hoping they land as close as possible to it. Players can choose to “point” and get their boule closest to the target for a score, or they can “shoot” and knock an opponents ball away from the target, an aggressive but often necessary move. Points are scored equal to the number of boules the scoring team has that are closer to the target than the closest boule of the other team. The first team to 13 wins.
It may seem easy, but pick up a boule and try to make it rest in the same point twice. It’s challenging. Not only does a player have to apply the same power and lift, they also have to factor in the changing landscape. A ball can hit a dimple in the dirt or a twig and roll a totally different direction.
“Some people think you’re just throwing a ball,” Greenberg said.
And just when the game seems to be at hand, an opponent can knock the cochonnet, or target, causing it to move closer to their boules and change the final score.
Greenberg, who was introduced to the game by a friend a little over a year ago, said he has become obsessed with pétanque, mainly because it requires players to use a variety of skills critical to success in other sports. The game calls for the same accuracy and control found in golf, the patience and strategy found in chess, as well as the ability to reading angles that one uses when shooting pool.
“There really are a lot of skills involved,” he said.
And that’s why Greenberg practices daily. With the new courts, chances are he’ll be at Palisades Park more than in his backyard, and he might even find time to replant that grass he tore up.
“I’m so grateful and appreciative and want to thank the city for making this a reality,” Greenberg said before turning back toward a woman who was leaning on the short fence surrounding the courts. In his hand was the sheet containing the rules to the game.