Rancho Mirage, CA
Forty of America's best golf croquet players reinvigorated the 12th installment of the National Championships. Mission Hills Croquet Club played host to players from Rhode Island, North Carolina, Colorado and Arizona, making this one of the most competitive golf croquet tournaments in North America since the World Championships in 2002.
Many thanks and credit for the attendance spike go to the USCA exhibition series featuring showcase matches on both coasts. In July, association rules national champion, Danny Huneycutt, took on seven-time US representative in the world championships, Sherif Abdelwahab, at Lake Toxaway Croquet Club in North Carolina. Danny narrowly won the event and the duo decided to team up for the doubles competition with much success. In early November the American rules champion, Ben Rothman, took on the current golf croquet champion, Dr. Mohammad Kamal, in Pasadena. Ben managed to win convincingly as Mohammad was having back problems which would return to haunt him; carrying the sport on his back for so many years has taken its toll. Both exhibitions were well-attended and attracted spectators and many players who have yet to play in a major golf croquet event. Those who would dismiss this variation of croquet as a “shooter's game without tactics” were shown the true complexity of the sport by the best in the country.
While many croquet clubs were closing up shop for winter, the players in Mission Hills were just getting started. For those who took the summer off, a notable improvement was evident as the tournament progressed. The most progressive player was the second flight's Welles Farago. Not to be mistaken with the popular financial institution, Welles began playing croquet last December in one of the Mission Hills beginner clinics with his partner, Marc Clausen. The dynamic duo worked their way through the block with their tactics and shooting becoming more refined as the competition continued. Welles only lost one game in the block (7-6) to Jerry Phillips and took the #2 spot in the playoff ladder.
While Championship flight stuck to best-of-three matches, the first and second flights played double elimination until the best-of-three final. Jerry Phillips took the #1 seed but his sharp shooting caused him to bite off a bit more than he could chew. After attempting long clearances and difficult hoop shots with fair success, Jerry found his risky play was not consistent enough to beat the bottom-seeded Betty Teoman. The result was no fluke as Betty went on to take third place in the competition. Welles ran into an upset as Ruth Stotter's sublime touch forced him into the loser's bracket. Welles took no prisoners as he got revenge on Jerry and even knocked out his own doubles partner, Marc Clausen. After defeating Betty, Welles dominated Ruth in the best-of-three final to take the championship 7-1, 7-2.
Fans who were disappointed with the one-sided singles enjoyed the most interactive match of the tournament in the doubles final. Top seeded Jerry Phillips and his partner Paul Christy went undefeated into the final against Welles and Marc for an all Mission Hills championship. Neither team held more than a two-point lead during the match and every game went to the playoff hoop. When the dust settled, Welles and Marc emerged from the battlefield as experienced veterans and doubles national champions (7-6, 6-7, 7-6)!
Marc Clausen, Paul Christy, Welles Farago, Jerry Phillips and a mid-air Ben Rothman
First flight marathoners broke the four-hour mark; not under four hours, but over! The doubles final of block winners Mary Rodeberg and Bob Riddell against Pasadena's best Eric and Caren Sawyer went 280 minutes for just two games! With their patient play, the happy couple outplayed and outlasted the local favorites at the playoff hoop for the title (7-3, 7-6). In an impressively civil union, Mr. Sawyer shared the doubles victory with his loving wife, Caren. Or did she share it with him...?
There was no rest for the victor as Eric Sawyer rushed across the lawns to play the singles final. Eric trudged his way through the contentious ladder against three of Mission Hills fantastic femme fatales. After a playoff point victory over Mary Rodeberg, Eric made sure to beat block-winner Sheri Foroughi nice and early... at the rover hoop. On the other side of the ladder, Jean Engebretson knocked top qualifier Bob Riddell down to the losers' bracket but fell just short of the finals and into third place.
Mary Rodeberg's Armadillo Jump
The loser's bracket was the story of a dark horse, wild card qualifier who snuck into the playoff ladder by three net points and lost his first round game. Karl-Heinz Kempfer of the Oakland Croquet Club had his back against the wall and managed to beat both block winners (Riddell and Foroughi) on his way to the final. When the doubles final drew to a close, Karl-Heinz ceased pacing the sidelines, smoked one last cigarette and got down to business. Matching shots with Eric was a daunting task after sitting out for so long, but the bushy-haired Kempfer kept Eric at bay. That is, at least, until rover hoop in game three. After seven hours and nearly 60 well-contested hoops, Eric Sawyer emerged with his first and second golf croquet national championships.
A rare sight was seen in the Championship flight as a phoenix from Phoenix returned to the game after a long absence. World champion and British Open finalist in 1999, Jacques Fournier has been away from competition since 2003. Players were happy to see the return of the Prince of Croquet, until they saw him play.
Jacques won his singles block with formidable tactics and impressive shooting while he and fellow Phoenician Paul Bennett methodically dismantled doubles opponents. The Arizona tag team decimated the best in the business, winning all four block matches with only two game losses. 2009 singles champion Mohammad Kamal and doubles partner Rich Lamm struggled at 1-2 and eventually had to withdraw from contention to save what was left Mohammad's back for singles. Ron Hendry and Jim Butts managed to shoot very well, but never at the same time, falling just short of the playoffs after an impressive victory over Rothman and Van Tassell. The sharp shooting team of Ron Eccles and Leo Nikora gave opponents fits as they managed to fight for hoops after being cleared great distances. After a successful block, Leo and Ron hit a cold patch and their inconsistent mid-range shots gave Paul and Jacques a spot in the finals. The aforementioned team from the Lake Toxaway exhibition rolled through the block with one bump, Paul and Jacques. Danny and the hard-hitting Sherif divided and conquered the local duo of Rothman and Van Tassell (7-3, 7-5) to reach the finals.
In the long awaited rematch, Danny and Sherif came from behind 6-4 to take the penultimate point and control of the rover hoop. With two balls in front of the hoop against two boundary balls, the game seemed destined for a playoff at hoop 13. Paul attempted to clear the danger ball from the West boundary but missed the 40-foot shot. Then it happened. The clouds parted, an earthquake struck, and the croquet gods redirected Paul's ball off of the spent ball (a full yard away from the intended target) and THROUGH THE HOOP! To Paul's credit: upon seeing the missed shot he called to the gods for his ball to “carom off of it!” The best missed shot this writer has ever seen gave game one to Paul and Jacques and took all momentum away from Danny and Sherif.
Team Miracle took control of game two 5-3 until Sherif and Danny battled back to an even 5-5 and the game paused. A quick photo was taken of all players (as some had to leave) and the game continued. While some momentum was lost, the first few shots went perfectly on target and a similar situation unfolded. At 6-5, Jacques took a difficult hoop shot instead of a clearance and jawsed his ball. Sherif had a three foot jump attempt and while most spectators were braced for the hoop 13 showdown, it was not meant to be. The croquet gods were still hanging around rover as Sherif missed the jump and conceded the point and the match to the Prince and the Pilot (7-5, 7-5).
The entire championship singles field played a best-of-three knockout after four small blocks determined seeding for the eclectic group of contenders. “Sandy” Bob Van Tassel managed to win his block after a battle in the twilight with Mohammad. Meanwhile, Jacques took the top spot from Sherif. The accomplished Egyptian-Americans had a tough draw ahead. In round one, it was Paul who broke Kamal's back and allowed the good doctor time to recuperate at home. The glory could not last as Mr. Bennett ran into a very consistent club pro, Rothman, and lost (7-3, 7-1). The upsets continued as Leo Nikora shot the lights out and dethroned the Prince in a hotly contested match (7-5, 7-6). The Maui man beat Ben in game one but eventually took third after a late Rothman rally (5-7, 7-1, 7-5). Partners Huneycutt and Abdelwahab met in the second round and replayed the exhibition with the same result; Danny won in the third game. Danny followed up by beating his MacRob teammate Rich Lamm on his way to the final against Rothman.
As the most accomplished American players in recent years, Ben and Danny are frequent opponents. Danny won the Association Nationals against Ben this April in Mission Hills while Ben won the North Carolina Open against Danny in Pinehurst. The two players have leapfrogged each other for the top rank in North America, currently sitting at numbers 8 (Rothman) and 10 (Huneycutt) in the world. They were teammates and even roommates for the MacRobertson Shield and they split games at the recent Selection Eights competition.
Danny started strong by making hoop one all the way down to position at hoop two and a quick lead 2-0. Ben had a chance to come back but missed some very rudimentary clearances and an easy hoop 6 to stay behind 4-2. We know (from a very reliable source) that at this point, Ben fundamentally changed his lineup procedure. With his new methods, the young pro began hitting his 6-yarders center ball and managed to tie the game at 4-4. Danny fired back to 6-4 and after a tough battle the game went to hoop 13. Danny missed an 18-foot hoop shot and eventually chose to jaws the hoop from 15 feet and a considerable angle while Ben was off to the side. The ill-fated attempt at the jaws became the perfect backboard for Ben. Both players looked and remarked at the (un)fortunate position just off of the right stanchion while Rothman was 12 feet off to the left. With a shrug and admission that it had to be tried, Ben banked in the difficult shot for game one. This was just not Danny's day for off-and-in shots.
The crowd that endured the long day got refills from the court side wet bar and moved to the warmer side as the sun began its quick descent behind the picturesque San Jacinto mountain range. Game two was all about endurance; Danny was playing his sixth game of the day and his accuracy faded as a result. Ben kept his hitting on line as it was only his fourth game of the day thanks to an early exit from the doubles competition. Every roll of the ball seemed to favor Ben and he ran away with the game and the title (7-6, 7-1). This is Rothman's sixth national championship and his fourth of the year.
Photos Courtesy of Genie Hendry and Sherif Abdelwahab.