Bill Hargrove took three small steps and dropped the ball at his feet with a loud clunk. While it rolled slowly down the lane, he held up his right arm in a camera-friendly pose.

Good form - especially for someone who's 106 and can't see what he's aiming at.

At a well-worn strip mall in suburban Atlanta, Hargrove became the oldest league bowler in U.S. history yesterday. Leading off for "Bill's Bunch," he knocked down nine pins with his first throw and averaged 93 in the three-game match.

"I haven't really given it much thought," Hargrove said. "I just go with the punches."

But plenty of others thought the occasion was worthy of notice. The United States Bowling Congress sent a representative all the way from Wisconsin to present Hargrove with a plaque. His minister came out. So did more than a dozen friends, who took turns posing for pictures with the man of the hour.

Hargrove surpassed the record that was held by 105-year-old John Venturello, of Sunrise, Fla., a certified bowler until his death in 1993. The new recordholder turned 106 last week.

"Unless someone can prove us wrong," said Mark Miller, a spokesman for the USBC, "we believe he's the oldest bowler in the world."

A few months ago, one of Hargrove's good friends asked him, "What is your goal in life?"

"I know that really seems like a dumb question to be asking a 105-year-old," said Tom Smith, who bowls with Hargrove in another league closer to his north Georgia home. "But he told me, 'I want to be 106, so when I throw that first ball I'll be the oldest sanctioned bowler ever.' He really wanted to set the record. And he did it."

Hargrove lost most of his sight with the passage of time, but his love of bowling never waned. He took up the sport in 1924 and remains passionate about every throw.

"It's been a lifelong pleasure," he said. "I'll keep playing as long as I can physically handle it."

Actually, Hargrove was starting to wear down from the grind of having to play three straight games in the league format. But his teammates got him a lighter ball about 6 weeks ago - he now throws an 8 pounder instead of a 10 - which has improved his scores and made it easier to keep going. Special holes were drilled into the ball at an angle, making it easier for him to handle with his arthritic finger.

Hargrove works around his other limitations.

Since he can't see the pins at the far end of the lane, he relies on a teammate to tell him which ones are standing after his first throw. Hargrove can't get much speed on the ball, so he has to rely on precision to knock down as many pins as possible. Occasionally, he dumps one in the gutter. More often, he puts the ball right where he's aiming.

"I love it," he said. "It puts you on trial as far as your ability. And your ability comes and goes. I'm fighting it all the time."

He plans to continue as long as he can.

"I don't want to be embarrassed about my bowling," he said. "When it gets embarrassing to me, that's when I'm going to quit." *