The GB team travelled for The Solomon Trophy to Bald Head Island, North Carolina, USA by means of bus, coach, car, train, plane, taxi, ferry, and finally golf cart in order to reach the homes of the island residents who had generously offered us accommodation. No form of transport was left untapped, the last being necessitated by the fact that the island, which is roughly 2 miles by 3, has no private cars. This contributes to the very peaceful, laid-back, atmosphere surrounding the island and its inhabitants.
I would estimate the GB team had several hundred thousand miles of "croquet travel" between them, but all agreed the hospitality we encountered at every turn was literally second to none. From having the final few legs of our journey organised (among many other things) by the ever-helpful Jeff Soo, to the aforementioned accommodation, to most meals being provided free of charge, to being offered drinks by club members almost every time we entered the bar (though no doubt some of this was in the hope that this would help the home team - misguided in most cases, particularly James's!), to the fantastic lawns, it was obvious we were very welcome and there is no doubt this all contributed to the high standard of play.
The week started with a "Pro-Am" event, where club members were paired with members of the USA and GB teams, and then played 14-point AC handicap doubles, alternate stroke. These were double-banked with a time limit of 50 minutes, which meant having bisques was a distinct advantage! However, playing quickly also helped and unsurprisingly, the winners after 3 rounds of Swiss were James Death and his partner Mrs Bidencope - who was visiting from Australia as her son Damon lives in North Carolina (though he was not taking part in the trophy on this occasion).
The following day we played the Presidents' Match, an event of USCA-rules croquet between GB and USA. The GB team was as per the test match, but USA took the opportunity to change their personnel. Despite this, they were still slight favourites, but eventually GB prevailed 8-1 (one round of doubles and one round of singles). Your correspondent gained unwanted plaudits from the Americans for being of assistance in getting them on the scoreboard, thanks to a combination of forgetting the rules and somewhat jejune tactics (much to the amusement of his watching team mates).
The serious stuff began the next morning with the first round of doubles in the Solomon Trophy. After being virtually impregnable in doubles for much of the last two decades, more recently the GB team has (relatively speaking) struggled in this form of the game. It was therefore very pleasing to go 3-0 up in pretty short order, though the 3rd point was somewhat delayed after Stephen Mulliner turned down a couple of winning opportunities in the second game, instead presenting them to his opponents. However, he recovered well from this in playing a good turn to finish off a scrappy third game.
As mentioned above, the lawns were in absolutely superb condition, running at 13-15 seconds and billiard-table smooth, with very few imperfections (and those that existed were only noticeable due to the pace of the lawn). However, most days there was a significant wind gradient, blowing across the courts from East to West. The line for long croquet strokes often needed adjusting to avoid the croqueted ball finishing 2-3 yards West of its intended target - only for the wind to drop at the wrong moment leaving you 2-3 yards East! The hoops were re-set every day by a dedicated groundstaff (the club also contains a golf course, so the standard of work is excellent) and therefore remained firm, but due to the sandy soil were not too challenging.
We were able to start the second round of doubles in the afternoon and Maugham & Evans more or less continued where they left off, though Evans put down a triple in the first game before later finishing with a good double peel. Maugham's shooting was at his best which certainly helped. Aiton & Burch eventually succumbed to a battling performance from Bast & Huneycutt, who looked like the best doubles pairing for the home side. Mulliner & Death overcame Grimsley & Rothman in fairly short order but both of these matches were in fact completed on a later day, due to the previous doubles match taking longer than it might have done.
Day two saw the first round of singles, with Evans seeing off Bast in fairly short order after a shaky start with neither player shooting well, followed by Jamie beating Rich Lamm with two nice triples. Danny Huneycutt continued his good form by beating GB captain Aiton, and then the top two Americans (Rothman and ex-Brit Patmore) showed their mettle by seeing off Maugham and Death in 3 games, all of which were high-quality. Meanwhile, left alone on lawn four (which was a new lawn specially constructed for this event situated on the other side of the club and out of sight), Mulliner lost the first game against Grimsley after a bad error, but then hit the longest of long lifts in game 2 and completed an immaculate TPO. The leave was slightly suspect but it did provoke an error from Doug, off which Stephen finished. The third game was a very quick TP from Stephen to bring the score to 7-3 in our favour at that stage (two of the earlier doubles were still unfinished).
The final round of doubles began on day three and Maugham & Evans lost their unbeaten record in games after good turns by Bast and Huneycutt. However, they bounced back to take the next two games and the match, with Dave's shooting being the difference once again. Lamm & Patmore put up a good fight against Death & Mulliner but the latter were just superior and put another point on the board for GB. Aiton & Burch edged the first against Rothman & Grimsley but Rothman hit the lift in the second game. However, he was hampered after 1 and after some discussion with partner, opted to shoot at Aiton's ball in corner IV. This missed which left Aiton a laid triple, which he gratefully completed to leave the score at 10-3, GB only needing one point from the final six singles (and two doubles which were still unfinished) to bring the trophy home. This was duly accomplished the same day by Mulliner & Death, so the score at the end of the day stood at 11-4 with 6 to play.
The attitude of the GB team was therefore somewhat more relaxed for the singles on the final day, with various sextuples, and octuples, and nontuples being attempted. Predictably, conditions were too difficult for the latter two to be sensible, and the Americans, very motivated to make the scoreline respectable in front of the home fans, played some of their best croquet of the event. Grimsley beat Evans on the "show lawn" with some excellent shots, helped slightly by the latter showing his inexperience of 3-ball endings. The show lawn was provided with live commentary throughout the week by means of Jeff Soo (and others) with a microphone, and wireless headsets sold to the spectators, which numbered at least 20 at all times. This was thought an excellent innovation by players and spectators alike and should definitely be used again, as I understand it is possible to cover the cost of the equipment by charging the spectators a small fee.
In the final games, Huneycutt confirmed his status as USA's "MVP" (most valuable player) by beating Jamie Burch, and Patmore continued his good run with a win against Maugham. Stephen Mulliner was the only GB player unbeaten in matches, with a good win against Bast.
Many thanks to Jeff Soo, the members of the Bald Head Island Club, the staff led by general manager Robert Norton, and the USA team, for a superb week of croquet. We look forward to welcoming them to the UK in 2013 for the next Solomon Trophy, where the competition is sure to be as fierce as ever.