Budleigh Croquet Club welcomed a true giant of the game to play in an exhibition Golf Croquet match on Monday afternoon. Chris Clarke is a winner of multiple major titles including two World Championships and has the rare distinction of having been world number 1 at both Association and Golf Croquet. Although English, he now lives in and represents New Zealand and played in the black kit of his adopted country.
The match was arranged by nineteen-year old Harry Dodge to thank his fellow Budleigh members for their support when he went to New Zealand for the Under-21 World Championship in February. Although he is only in his fifth season of competitive play, Harry has won the British Open Doubles Championship twice and is now ranked fourth in the UK and eighteenth in the world.
A large and appreciative crowd enjoyed a match of the highest quality. The average club player aims to place their ball within a yard or two of the hoop, but here both men were taking positions seven yards or more away and then running the hoops with ease. And this with the hoops set at just 1/16th of an inch wider than the balls!
The first game saw the players winning alternate hoops until Harry managed to take both the seventh and eighth hoops to give him a two-hoop advantage. Chris replied with the next two hoops but Harry succeeded at hoops 11 and 12 to take the game 7-5 in just forty minutes.
There had already been many stunning shots from ten or twenty yards away to clear balls that were poised to run hoops, as well as occasional failed attempts at both hoops and roquets. By the second game both players had found their range and adapted to local conditions, and mistakes were fewer. Clarke took an early advantage by winning two of the first three hoops before Dodge managed to run the fifth hoop with an angled eighteen yard shot. After a lengthy tussle at hoop nine, Harry managed to pull the score back to 4-5 and then 5 all and 6-5. He needed just one more hoop to win the game and the match, while Chris needed both remaining hoops to level the score at one game all. Tactics became critically important as the natural order of things in golf croquet is for players to win alternate hoops. Clarke placed his partner ball where it would be able to promote the ball about to run hoop twelve to the playing side of the thirteenth hoop. The placement of the partner ball and the running of the hoop were achieved with pinpoint accuracy and allowed him to take the game 7-6.
In the third, Clarke went 3-0 up but only after a twenty minute battle at the third hoop that eventually ended when he ran it from the boundary seven yards away with such force that the ball ended up on the opposite boundary thirty five yards distant. Dodge again clawed the situation back by taking the next two hoops, but Clarke had other ideas. He demonstrated what World Champions are made of, as he powered to a 7-2 victory to take the match 5-7, 7-6, 7-2.
And what was the shot of the day? Was it when Clarke ran hoop 4 in the second game from a distance of 22 yards? One of the thirty yard clearances? Or Dodge's shot of at least ten yards that jumped over both of the opponents' balls to run hoop 5 in the last game? The spectators will be debating the point and dreaming of doing the same well into the future.