The growth and enthusiasm for Golf Croquet on continental Europe continues unabated. As an example, Spain now has about 250 GC players compared to 30 AC players. This was reflected in the highest ever demand (54) for the 32 places in the 7th European GC Championship, an event now elevated to annual status.
The Championship returned to the Surbiton Club after a gap of four years and, then as now, the Swedish contingent led by Simon Carlsson and Jonatan Anderson was expected to provide tough competition for the dozen UK-based competitors, which included the defending champion, Stephen Mulliner, the Cheyne brothers, Martin French, Tim King and the Women's GC World Champion, Rachel Rowe. In the event, Norway's Roar Michalsen also demonstrated how much he had improved by reaching the semi-finals undefeated.
The format was four blocks of 8, best-of-three 13 point games with the top 4 progressing to the knock-out. The only possible drawback to Surbiton as a venue is the fact that it has 7 lawns compared to the 10 available at venues like Budleigh, Cheltenham and Southwick which means that a certain amount of double-banking has to be endured. There is no doubt that the main problem is not colliding balls from different games (this happened barely at all) but the often lengthy delays that can occur when one match gets bogged down at a hoop. GC needs to adopt the golf custom of "calling through" the other pair when it is obvious that they are likely to make quicker work of the hoop in question.
The blocks began with a few surprises, possibly aided by the fact that the hoops on Thursday were very accommodating. This is no criticism of Surbiton or its volunteers (chiefly Graham Brightwell) who had laboured mightily to clear the lawns of standing water from Wednesday's downpour. Fortunately, there was no rain during the event and the hoops soon returned to their normal Surbitonic firmness. Gerald Ehmes has been playing GC in Germany for several years and this was his first trip to the UK for any purpose. Not many will secure a World Champion's scalp in their opening match, but Gerald did by beating Rachel Rowe 2-7, 7-6, 7-3 in Block D. Peter Balchin (Wales) was equally undaunted and did likewise to Stephen Mulliner in Block A by 7-3, 3-7, 7-2. Roar Michalsen was known to be a tough competitor and was very pleased to displace Jonatan Andersson (the 2009 finalist) from top spot in Block C. In Block A, Stephen recovered first place in Block A after an excellent match with Simon Carlsson which he won 7-4, 3-7, 7-4 while Howard Cheyne and Martin French showed excellent form by winning Blocks B and D without defeat.
The first round of the knock-out contained a couple of tougher matches than might have been expected. Simon Carlsson was taken to the 13th in game 3 before getting past Richard Thompson and Nick Archer did very well to beat Howard Cheyne in the same way. Rachel Rowe and Tobi Savage had an excellent encounter with Rachel getting into her stride in game 2 to win 7-6, 7-4. She kept her shooting boots on in beating Stephen Mulliner 7-6, 7-5 in the quarter-final and so qualified to meet Roar Michalsen who proved just too good for Gerald Ehmes by 7-5, 7-5. On the other half of the draw, Simon Carlsson was stretched initially by Martin French but eventually came home 7-5, 6-7, 7-4 when Martin could no longer match Simon's magnificently consistent shooting. Nick Archer took the middle game off Jonatan Andersson but the Swede ended the match with a succession of long hoops to win 7-3, 5-7, 7-2. No doubt he was helped by his family support party - parents, brother and fiancee!
The two semi-finals provided rather different spectacles. Roar, undefeated in the event to this point, made an excellent start against Rachel by taking game 1 by 7-3. However, Rachel now demonstrated an admirable level of determination, refused to be bothered by this and took the next two by 7-2 and 7-4. A little earlier, the Swedish semi-final had served up a superb piece of entertainment. Simon Carlsson took the first 7-5, was comfortably pulled back by 7-3 by Jonatan but built up an early lead of 4-2 and the 5-3 in the decider. Jonatan won 9 with a clean 4 yard hoop that gave him control of 10 and then produced a great clearance in front of 11 to lead 6-5. However, he failed to run 11 down to 12 which allowed Simon to reach 6-6. The duel at 13 was not straightforward and both players had chances before Jonatan closed out the match.
At this stage, Jonatan was the bookie's favourite having demonstrated his ability to hit straight with astonishing consistency for prolonged periods while Rachel, despite having shown tremendous recent form, seemed just not quite so strong. The opening game of the final seemed likely to bear this out although Rachel hung in well. At 6-6, Jonathan had the first approach to 13, albeit from the West penalty spot, and left himself a 3-4 yard straight hoop for the game with K. He failed into the jaws and Rachel made no mistake with a 3 yard slightly angled jump to lead 1-0. Jonatan fought back as expected and won a close second by 7-5.
The decider swayed towards both players at times. Rachel took hoop 1 but rush peeled Jonatan at 2 which enabled him to lead 2-1. Rachel then went 4-2 up after running hoop 6 from near hoop 4 (possibly by accident!) but was pulled back to 4-4 and 5-5. The duel at 11 lasted almost 15 minutes before Rachel, having jawsed, ran it only to hit a ball near the peg and glue herself to it. The time was now 1750 and this time a further 25 minutes was needed to resolve the hoop. This included two opportunities for Jonatan to run 12 which he declined because Rachel's next ball to play was legally close to 13. Both players shot very well but eventually someone had to miss and that happened to be Jonatan, leaving Rachel a 2 yard hoop for the title which she ran with aplomb. It was a really great achievement showing excellent character and determination. Jonatan deserves great commiserations. He has been second twice but probably played the best GC of anyone at various times, the product of long practice on an artificial soccer pitch at home.
The event was concluded with thanks to the management (Stephen Mulliner and Don Beck) and to Surbiton for providing excellent catering as well as lawns in superb condition. The Championship Dinner at Sarab in the Ewell Road was a very enjoyable occasion and everyone is looking forward to the 2015 Championship.