Ten players competed for the 5th Austrian Open and the "Beer Cup" over the weekend of 29-31 August at Croquetclub Romergolf which is outside Salzburg. The club has two courts in a golf club complex in what must be the most scenic surroundings in Europe, if not the world. We had two days of glorious sunshine on Saturday and Sunday and the views of the rolling Austrian countryside, dotted with beautifully-kept villages with mountains for a backdrop, is not easily forgotten. Add splendid hospitality, including copious supplies of free Stiegl beer, and the civilised habit of breaking off for lunch at a nearby restaurant at 2 p.m., and you have a superb mixture of croquet and vacation.
Group A comprised Stephen Mulliner, William Ormerod, Mike Town, Klaus Gollhofer and Heinz Hackl. Heinz is known to many UK players and is based at Volkersdorf near Vienna, where he has established two excellently quick courts which will be full-size next season, while Klaus is based near Salzburg and is one of Europe's best GC players. Stephen and Mike emerged as 1st and 2nd. Stephen completed two sextuples out of four attempts, including the first in Salzburg and was rewarded a few minutes later by a magnum of excellent local champagne (with apologies to any French pedants) which was eventually consumed by all at Sunday lunch. Mike played well, including a crucial delayed TP against William who had established a significant lead with time beginning to be an issue.
Group B contained Chris Patmore, Don Gaunt, Strat Liddiard, John Spiers and Martin Guntner, another promising local player. Chris rattled off a succession of TPs to win the block comfortably with Don an equally convincing runner-up, looking to be in consistent form. Chris received a bottle of local champagne for the first TP in Salzburg a few minutes after Stephen had received his magnum but, possibly predictably, the half-life of this award was also measured in minutes as Chris distributed it among the players on the upper lawn.
The semi-finals matched Stephen against Don and Chris against Mike and were played as best-of-three. They started before lunch on Saturday and were completed comfortably by mid-afternoon. Stephen departed from script and actually went to 4-b in game 1 with a good leave. The 19 yard lift was hit (inevitable, really) and Don picked up and played an excellent break until he hampered himself in a rather unusual fashion when laying a DSL. He had placed the backward oppo ball 1 cm due E of the peg but left a very tricky rush on partner which he sadly bevelled. Careful inspection revealed that Stephen could just hit one of the balls if they were left where they had come to rest and he duly completed the TP. Game 2 saw a return to 1-b tactics but the dauntless Gaunt hit the tea-lady and went to 4-b with a good DSL. However, the 1-b ball was by the peg and Stephen hit it centrally enough to rush it to near 6 and was able to extract his third sextuple of the weekend.
In the other semi-final, Chris looked to have his fifth TP going well until a straight rover peel failed to go through by enough to prevent it being roqueted immediately. A gallant and careful attempt at a combination peg out (understatement of the weekend addressed to double-banking player "You had better play on - I'll be some time about this") failed and one ball was pegged out. Mike picked up a 3-ball break with some adventurous strokes but loss of control near 3-b left Chris with an 8 yard peg shot which he nailed to win +18 Game 2 was a swift 26tp to Chris.
The final was played as best-of-5. Chris won the toss, elected to go first and played B from A-baulk to about 5 yards SW of 2. Stephen replied with a long E boundary tice which Chris missed at an angle from outside C3. Stephen hit but failed to get behind K and settled for a leave with K close to the N boundary and B SW of 1. Chris hit the tea-lady length shot (no doubt anticipating further practice) with aplomb and went to 4-b with a NSL. However, Stephen hit nicked the 22 yarder down the E boundary and had the TPO. Chris fell short on the roll up from E boundary and laid a squeeze. Y (the backward ball) retired to C4 and Chris boosted to just NW of 2 and hit the 7 yarder at R. However, the roll-up to 2 fell short and, perhaps a little quixotically, he fired at Y in C4, missing by enough on the left to leave a rush up the E boundary. This was taken and, aided by a pass-roll approach to 1 and an angled hoop with good Murray control, allowed a 3-ball break to be taken all the way for 1-0, which became 2-0 to Stephen after a supershot opening and 5th turn QP.
Game 3 had the most interactivity. Chris opened by firing B from B baulk to 2 feet W of C4. Stephen laid R 8 inches S of C2. Chris fired at this with K from A-baulk, missing by 2 feet on the right. Stephen hit with Y played a promotion cannon to get K 3 yards towards 2 and a rush on Y to 1. The attempt to rush to C4 after hoop 1 was not great and the take off behind B near C4 fell a little short, allowing a cut only as far as C1. A mammoth roll (or should this be a camel roll?) was too strong and Y crossed the N boundary with decision. Chris hit, took off to B well N of 3, cut it to E boundary level with 6, took off to R near C4, pass rolled it to just S of 5 while getting 5 yard straight position at 1. This was run cleanly to just north of the peg on the 1-2 line and he elected to shoot at partner on E boundary rather than R. This missed and Stephen also missed with Y from N boundary at R, ending on the S boundary. Chris could now have chosen to play with B for 1 but elected to continue with K for 2 by rushing B to 3, taking off to Y on S boundary and then to R to get the rush to 2. However, the rush on R was poor and the approach left a very angled hoop which bounced off, wired from both R and B (by 3). Stephen played to leave Y (still on the S boundary) a rush to the E boundary and Chris missed. This allowed a 1-b leave with Y with the B and K spread vertically across 1. The Patmore one-handed backward jump gained plenty of height but was not straight enough. Stephen began the sextuple but rushed the escape ball after 2 into 6 and ended up peeling 2-b while leaving a 5 yard "rush" to 5. This missed and Chris had no problems taking B to 4-b with two POPs on R to 1-b - apart from getting hampered after 3-b and missing the roquet.
Stephen was then able to take the 1-b ball to the peg and, after the lift was missed, to take the 3-b ball to the peg to win his first Austrlan Championship and receive a singular trophy, namely a 3 litre stein guaranteed to give even the most dedicated ale-drinker pause for thought. Chris received a 2 litre stein which will no doubt sustain him during future matches when suitable filled.
Mike Town was a worthy winner of the 3rd place play-off 2-0, with Don not able to reproduce his form of the first two days, and takes home a 1 litre stein. Klaus won something for Austria by defeating William Ormerod +4 in the Plate Final but, with typical generosity, presented the prize of local chocolates to William.
The organisers, Klaus Golhoffer and Leopold and Max Walderdorf, worked tirelessly to make everything run smoothly and were warmly thanked by the visitors. The visitors stayed at the Gschirnwirt Hotel which was very comfortable and went to dinner on Friday at the Salzburg Fortress (with views over the city that would have been spectacular had the weather been clearer) and on Saturday at Klaus' home. Sarah Mulliner and Sheila Liddiard were given a conducted tour of Salzburg by Klaus' mother who could be a professional guide if she wanted.
Golfers and other holidaymakers are spoilt for choice with a variety of cultural offerings and it was no surprise that most of the visitors were staying on until later in the week. UK players are made very welcome in Austria and the 6th Austrian Open next year is worthy of serious consideration if you want enjoyable croquet with the chance to do other things. It will be held at Volkersdorf near Vienna on two full-size and distinctly quick courts.
Postscript: The Mulliner Hoop Base was given its first trial in a sandy environment and came through most encouragingly. The hoop felt very firm and remained so despite 20 minutes of sustained stress testing by several of the players. Poor shots were rejected Christchurch-style and when the hoop base was removed, the same hoop in the same holes, while initially firm, soon loosened in the way typical of a sand base. The consensus was that 110mm between the centres of the holes is too wide, as it leaves a 4mm gap. The next versions will feature 108 and 109mm. The former will probably be quite formidable.