Thursday, January 8, 2009

The British Opens

Heralded as "the most competitive tournament in the world" (Brian Cumming, national champion), the British Opens were my first experience in a major international tournament.

I traveled to Fairford (a town 45 minutes from Cheltenham) with Paul Bennet to stay with Ron's relatives on the cheap. Ron introduced us to his kind aunt and uncle and then sent Paul and I off to stay with his less than accommodating curmudgeon of an uncle who terrorized him as a child. Gee, thanks Ron.

Playing in the Opens was an eye opening experience, I was finally able to meet the juggernauts of the game (Fulford, Bamford, Mulliner, Death, etc.) whom I had heard and read so much about. David Maugham organized a creative opening round format; a swiss in which six wins or six losses decided whether you made the playoffs. The best players ended up with a difficult road as they continued winning, and those with losing records fought tooth and nail to get closer to that winning record and that chance at the best of three, single elimination knock out. The doubles was a simple best of three knockout.

Paul and I continued our fruitful partnership and started against Samir Patel (top 20 in the world and eventual singles finalist) and his partner Louise Bradforth. We played on a court with some character (about half of the courts had some unique rolls) and played a quick clean match winning +23, +26tp (my triple).

This put us up against compatriot Danny Huneycutt and David "the Goat" Goacher, known for his off-whites, slow pace, and unique technique. David bends at close to a right angle, rarely stalks the ball, plays with a very spread standard grip with his top hand hinging near his chest. He lines up his accurate shots with a few hundred casting swings and occasionally refuses to shoot; opting to back off, scratch himself, and line up once again. These antics proved great basis for drinking games late in the day as we watched David run patient breaks around in the twilight.

Our match was an epic four day encounter stopping and starting with rain delays and having to be pegged down several times in the rain and dark. Despite my very delayed (first peel after hoop 6) triple in the second game, Paul and I were defeated +25, -20 tp, +15tp (Danny's triple). Danny and the Goat (feel free to sing their name to the theme of Benny and the Jets) managed to scrape out some amazing victories only to be defeated by the heavily favored Fulford and Death in a best of 5 final. The last few rounds that Fulford and Death Played were quite interesting as Robert could not miss, hitting in 3rd or 4th turn nearly every game and leaving it to James to finish. Normally this would be entirely standard and boring, but Robert insisted that James not drink in the final rounds. James was markedly uncomfortable, and maybe it was just the pressure, but many speculated the sobriety was not helping his mental state.

The singles swiss was hard to organize (and David Maugham did an amazing job; taking a half hour or less to figure out each round of 40 pairings) but eliminated so called "dead games" which often occur when people know whether they have made the knock out or not and have to play their somewhat meaningless remaining games. The swiss was seeded to start with leaving #2 in the world against 17 year-old James LeMoignan, son of Tony LeMoignan who is an established world-class player from the Isle of Jersey. James had yet to play a top level tournament, and this was one of his first away from home. Tony had soberly told James not to expect to win any games, let alone against Fulford. After a failed sextuple and a failed quadruple peel, James managed to hit in and score a triple peel against #2 in the world! James went on to qualify for the knockout before Tony did. So much for Tony's preditction.

I started off with two quick losses to David Foulser and WCF persident David Openshaw -19tp and -3tp respectively. I managed to beat my former host, Ian Vincent +19, and take down a young upstart Chris Chambers +26dp. I had to face my compatriot Stewart Jackson, but I managed to dispatch him +17tp. Having worked my way to a winning record, my competition heated up. Now I faced #5 in the world James Death, who would go on to win the doubles title. James set up for the sextuple peel and I got extremely lucky and hit in. It would be pretty hard to build a break, so I set a nice leave giving James a 26 yard hit in chance. Wouldn't you know it, he hit in and got the sextuple peel anyways. I got lucky in that my next two opponents hit in first, but both missed shots after making hoop 1. I beat Martin Murray +25 and Tony LeMoignan +23. At 5-3 I had a chance to qualify without that stressful win or go home game.

I had to play Jack "Wicksy" Wicks, a 20 year-old kid who has been mentored a bit by Fulford. I played against him in the East Midlands where I managed two clean 6th turn triples. Wicksy hit in first and went around. I managed to hit in, but I couldn't get the break. Eventually I got that ball around and managed to get my three peels. The last peel was a straight rover, leaving me no shot on the wicket. Wicksy only got one hoop on the ensuing turn and set a leave. I calmed my nerves and hit in from 18 yards, but after making rover, I worried so much about getting my partner ball staked out, that I missed the 4 yard return roquet! Wicksy ran into trouble around hoop 6 leaving me one last chance. I watched as my 42 foot shot stayed on line and hit, dead center. I had two balls for the peg while he was for hoop 6 and penultimate. My partner ball was near corner two, nd I couldn't get a rush on it to peg out. I set one last leave, but Wicksy hit in as well. He managed to get his double peel and win by 2. I recovered poorly, missing a few easy hoops in a 24 point loss to Ian "Digger" Burridge.

That woke me up. I had to play Sam Tudor in a game to go. We were both 5-5, so this game decided one of the last spots in the playoff. We were on the showcase court right in front of the clubhouse at the end of the day. There was quite a crowd to watch us young guns go at it. I went East of hoop 4, while Sam played the Duffer tice. Knowing I needed to focus, I shut out the peanut gallery and hit the 18 yarder. I managed to turn it into a third turn break around, giving Sam the 3 ducks leave. He missed, and in front of some o fthe best players I've met, in a win or go home situation, I ran the second 5th turn triple of my career.

We Americans did well, with Danny and Paul qualifying in only 10 games and David Bent qualifying in a nail biting game against his doubles partner Ron Lloyd. I've been told that there had never been four Americans in the Opens Knockout. We didn't get much furthur than that.
I went down -17tp, -26tp to Mark Avery; Danny lost to Robin Brown; David lost to David Maugham; Paul did the best, losing in three games to Jonothan Kirby.

There were two separate consolation events: an official plate and a Z-event to allow people to play as much as they would like. I was able to win a few games in the plate, but was knocked out by Richard Jenkins by way of a triple. In a few extra games I managed my first tpo. When it came to the semi-final, there was a bit of uproar over the random top four seeds. The random seeding put Robert Fulford and Reg Bamford in the same half and up against eachother in the best of five semi-final. I really wanted to watch the match, as did my opponent Peter Trimmer. I was glad to allow him time to watch as I got my third ever 5th turn triple. We were able to watch the most impressive display on a croquet court I could have imagined.

Reg played first, and missed the third shot. Robert hit on fourth turn, set the sextuple leave, and ran a 6th turn sextuple for game one. Reg only missed two shots, one of which was 28 yards or so. In game two Robert played first, hit third turn and got a 5th turn triple. Reg only missed one shot. Game three was a repeat of game one, except Robert also hit on second turn and spread the balls out. All in all, Robert beat #3 in the world allowing him only 5 shots, 2 of which were tea lady shots. Robert went on to win against Samir Patel in the final. I was knocked out of the Z-event by a sextuple, meaning of the three events (the knockout, plate, and z-event) I was knocked out by three triples and a sextuple. At least my opponents had to perform to beat me.

I left England a few grade and index points ahead, a U.S. team event and a major WCF event under my belt, and a 23-18 record. It was an amazing adventure and I feel it was a formative time in my croquet life.

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