The England squadby Tim King at Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
Sixty-four players from nineteen countries gathered to compete in the WCF 7th World Golf Croquet Championship. Hawkes Bay served as an excellent location, with a Mediterranean climate and three delightful clubs providing courts: Te Mata (Havelock North), Marewa (Napier) and Rangatira (Dannevirke). The clubs are spread apart (two hours drive north to south) but transport provision by the organisers was more than adequate.
The ten England representatives at the Championship are in the photo, standing: Chris Clarke, Chris Daniels, Chris Sheen, Robert Fulford, David Hopkins, Ian Lines, Dick Strover; kneeling: Tim King, Stephen Mulliner, Julie Hudson. Simon Carter sponsored team shirts, which helped to provide a sense of national pride. Unsurprisingly, as hosts, the New Zealand contingent numbered sixteen. The other major "team" was Egypt with eight players. The latter two groups provided visible and audible support for fellow nationals. Indeed, the Egyptians hold very dear their clean sweep of the six previous Championships.
The Championship began with an Opening Ceremony on the evening of Friday 3 March at the Te Mata club. The local interest was already apparent from the presence of more than 100 spectators for the ceremony. Dignitaries from local life, Croquet New Zealand and the WCF gave speeches. A briefing ensured that the players were all ready to start at the three different clubs on the following day.
The weather for the Championship began most unseasonably. The first day (Saturday) was the low point, with very bitter, strong winds from the south (that is, direct from Antarctica!). The wind appeared to unsettle many of the players and there were some noticeable upsets. Khalid Younis (Egypt, three-times World Champion) lost to Geoff Young (New Zealand), Robert Fulford lost to Jean-Yves Guermont (France) and Mark McInerney (Ireland) lost to Doron Gunzburg (Australia). Eventually, at 47th, Doron was highest of those three early winners in the final rankings for the Championship.
The organisers could do little about the weather but all other preparations were generally without fault. Catering was often excellent. The reputation of the Egyptians had clearly gone before and the court layout was generous (made possible by redrawing court boundaries, reducing usable court numbers at each club) with substantial boundary boards. The Marewa courts were in superb condition. Unfortunately, at Te Mata, the hard hitters occasionally suffered from some bumpiness. One shot from an Egyptian suddenly leapt to chest height after travelling part way across the court. The referees performed to a generally high standard. No major controversy affected the Championship.
A major toxic fire in the locality failed to disrupt play at Te Mata on the first day. Heat of all sorts became a theme of the week. Te Mata provoked memories for the older players as the local fire station had possessed something sounding like an air raid warning siren. Meanwhile, the courts at Marewa were treated every twenty minutes or so to the sound of the water heater whistling! Once everyone no longer needed multiple layers against the wind, some of the most welcome facilities were the SPF 30 sun cream dispensers available beside the courts.
As the weather settled down, results began to go more to expectation. The eight blocks each consisted of eight players. The seven block matches for each player consisted of single 19-point games, with all playing all. The allocation to blocks took account of an even distribution of nationalities and ranking positions. However, seemingly easy and difficult block still appeared. The seven rounds of play took place over the first three-and-a-half days of the Championship.
Reg Bamford (South Africa) versus Evan Newell (Ireland) was one of the exciting block matches. Evan is probably the archetype for the expression "mercurial". Over the course of the Championship, neither individual played to their full potential. But the match included Reg playing one of the best shots of the week when he cut rush black to clear Evan's blue from in front of hoop 9. Yellow and black were close to each other on the south boundary close to hoop 8 and yellow ended up close to hoop 2. After a close battle, Reg won 10-9. Reg was undoubtedly disappointed not to leave Hawkes Bay as holder of both World titles.
The top four from each block qualified for the main knockout. Number of match wins was the primary decider of position. If players with the same number of wins lay either side of the fourth-fifth place divide then play-off matches occurred (13-point games). Of the eight blocks, three had fourth versus fifth play-offs and one had play-offs between three players for two places. Ian Lines was successful in the latter situation but Tim King missed out on being the eighth English player in the top 32, losing to the talented New Zealand teenager AJ Reid.
The closest block included Mark McInerney, failing to live up to his top-six seeding and ending up in a play off for fourth and fifth places. Mark won and, thus, emerged as a dangerous opponent for a block winner. Previously, at the players briefing, the organisers announced a change to the originally published draw, which had given the potential for players to identify knockout opponents dependent on the results of block matches. Instead, after completion of all the matches, each block received a new letter by random draw for allocation of the players into the knockout. Chris Clarke (having won all his block matches) was unfortunate enough to end up playing Mark and lost 7-3, 2-7, 3-7. Chris won all his remaining matches, winning 14 out of 17 games in total for the Championship, one of the top winning percentages.
Many of the knockout matches were in line with predictions. However, some players performed above expectations. Before eventually losing the match, Ian Lines had one of the best game results, beating Mohamed Nasr 7-1 in the second of three. (Mohamed only lost two other games all week, both to Egyptians.) Stephen Mulliner reached the semi-finals, where he lost to Salah Hassan (Egypt) but beat Reg Bamford on the way. The other losing semi-finalist was Mark McInerney, who played some shots at the same level as the Egyptians but his heart was not in 3rd-4th play off and he lost to Stephen. Jenny Williams finished 7th, the best performance by a woman at a World Championship (and she will join the top eight with automatic selection for the next Championship). Anton Varnas (Sweden) came 15th, an impressive improvement on the previous Championship.
In the plate, Leopold Walderdorff (Austria) showed rapidly increasing confidence during the course of the week as he relished the opportunity to play on better courts, against stiffer opposition than is possible in his home country. He won the final 10-6 against Christine Pont (Australia).
The final on Sunday 13 March was a spectacular climax to the Championship. About three hundred people gathered to watch, encircling the court. Mohamed Nasr and Salah Hassan did not disappoint. Salah demonstrated why he is twice world champion and Mohamed delivered against the potential of high position in the Egyptian ranking system.
The match has several key passages. Arguably, the first was definitive, although enough twists occurred throughout for this not to have felt the case at the time. After sharing the first two hoops, Salah made a tactical error at hoop 3. He looked set to attempt a shot at the hoop with black when he changed his mind. However, although he cleared yellow to an acute angle, this was not all the way to the boundary. Mohamed ran the hoop with yellow.
Salah approached hoop 4 with blue. Mohammed ran hoop 4 with red from about five yards east and one yard north of the peg. As is more often the case with Mohamed, the ball ran all the way to the far boundary (south), closer to hoop 4 than 5. The next three balls approached hoop 5. Mohamed then ran hoop 5 with the red ball that had run hoop 4 on its previous turn (from yet another tight angle)! Before too much longer, Mohamed moved to 5-1 up.
To his credit, Salah did not crumble and won 9 of the next 15 hoops. He went 2-6 down and eventually lost 4-7 in the first game. But he took a 6-3 lead in the second game. Mohamed was not able to sustain his previous devastating burst and Salah played with the variation that he has in greater abundance than many of the other Egyptian players. Only very occasionally, would Mohamed play a less aggressive shot. At the risk of failing to acknowledge some of the more subtle Egyptian tactics, such inconsistency in his approach seemed somewhat random.
The next phase of play, was Mohamed rescuing the second game with four hoops to win 7-6. Nothing spectacular but showing an equal ability to tough out close, competitive hoops. Both players showed great skill in clearing from long distance. But Mohamed just had the edge. At this point, the writing appeared to be on the wall for Salah.
The next incident was one of the most obvious examples of sporting behaviour during the Championship. This behaviour was notable not least because the two players had been slightly at odds over an earlier situation when Mohamed played a crush shot in running a ball that had lain in the jaws of the hoop. In Egypt, the convention is for such crushing not to be a fault. Salah had to explain the decision of the referee to Mohamed, who looked less than happy.
At the beginning of the third game, Mohamed had an aberration and touched his ball while casting. Salah looked all set to carry on with his next shot when he suddenly changed his mind and called Mohamed over for a discussion in Arabic. As a consequence, the players played the next three balls with gentle taps, leaving Mohamed in the same position as if he had not made his mistake. The crowd applauded generously once they realised what was happening. Mohamed eventually won the hoop. However, Salah was up to the challenge and won the game 7-3. The spectators were delighted to see the spectacle continue.
In the fourth game, Salah battled to a 3-2 lead. And then occurred the final pivotal point of the match. Mohamed had his red close to corner I (the blue flag). Black was the only ball in the vicinity of the hoop (six). One or two of the spectators spotted the purpose in Mohamed's attitude as he stepped up to level the game. Everyone was awe struck as he ran the hoop. Salah did have a relatively easy chance to win hoop 7, which he subsequently lost, but the end was in sight. Mohamed maintained control of the rest of the game to win 7-5.
The Egyptian team expressed their delight at yet another success. The spectators all expressed their appreciation of a great match. At the celebration dinner on the Sunday evening, Amir Ramsis was frank in admitting his objective to maintain the Egyptian grip on the Championships. But players from other countries showed that they have the talent to play the necessary shots. The current gap almost certainly lies in the relative paucity of tough, competitive golf croquet that is available to the non-Egyptians, some of whom also put in plenty of practice time to reach the peaks of their consistency.
The age range of the players was wide (12 to 75). And some of the older players showed that touch can make a contribution to success in Golf Croquet. The most notable older performers were Bob Jackson (New Zealand, 8th), Owen Edwards (Australia, 12th) and Tony Hall (Australia, 22nd). However, the spectacle lies in consistent big hitting, which seems more likely to establish a reputation as a truly competitive sport and attract a steady influx of new players. On the other hand, Chris Clarke did report the "elderly" spectator who said "I play Golf Croquet; what game is this they are playing?".
Congratulations to Stephen Mulliner in leading the England challenge by finishing 3rd. The other England representatives finished: Robert Fulford (9th), Chris Clarke (16th), Chris Daniels (20th), Dick Strover (21st), Ian Lines (25th), Chris Sheen (28th), David Hopkins (46th), Tim King (50th) and Julie Hudson (52nd). All gained valuable experience from the opportunity and enjoyed other local delights including some wonderful wines. When you meet the players on the tournament circuit in the coming season, they will be full of stories. Dick, Chris Sheen and David were accompanied by non-playing partners, who helped to prevent croquet being the only topic of conversation during social time. Dick hosted an excellent barbeque for all the team and other friends.
Overall, the Championship was a great festival of Golf Croquet. Some learnt lessons will perhaps lead to changes for future aspects of organisation. However, nothing major marred the general sense of enjoyment. Most players will be marking their diaries for 2008, when the current expectation is for South Africa to be the next venue for the Championship.