Stephen Mulliner won the Golf Croquet Open Championship
The 2020 GC Open Championship was hosted by Sussex County CC on excellent courts with robust hoops. It was a pity that coronavirus prevented Southwick's catering and bar from being in operation but otherwise the event was as normal apart from the cancellation of the Doubles Championship.
The weather was expected to be uncertain but it was not until Sunday lunchtime that there was any interruption of play when a cloudburst accompanied by a thunderstorm turned the courts into lakes in about 15 minutes. It was a great tribute to Southwick's lawns contractor, Ben Harwood, that they drained promptly as soon as the rainfall moderated and were fully playable (helped by some noble squeegee work by Richard Carline) within an hour.
The entry was strong, albeit missing the quarantined Reg Bamford, although most players were effectively at the start of their seasons.
Block A featured the top seed, John-Paul Moberly, who started strongly before losing to a resurgent Mark Daley and then to second seed, Richard Bilton. Richard was involved in no fewer than four three-game matches but had the knack of winning them all and ended unbeaten. Euan Burridge, fresh from his London Masters triumph, was third behind John-Paul by only one net game and Guy Scurfield won the crunch last round match against Daley.
Block B had a three-way tie between Stephen Mulliner, Will Gee and Stuart M Smith on 6/7 but Mulliner had the best net games and 46 net points and Gee had the same net game as Smith but much better net points. Peter Dowd qualified fourth by beating Richard Brooks in round 7.
Block C promised to be the manager's nightmare when Tim King found his best form for some time to defeat Rachel Gee 7-3, 7-5. Tobi Savage was the form horse and won all seven with a respectable 45 net points. It duly transpired that Simon Carter, Steve Leonard and Tim all finished on four wins and three play-off rounds were needed to identify Carter and Leonard as the other qualifiers.
Block D was won by the unbeaten Jonathan Powe with Ian Burridge second on 6/7. James Galpin, the 2019 Under 21 GCWC finalist, qualified third in his first British Open and Tim Jolliff from Taunton beat Raouf Allim in the last round for the fourth qualifying spot.
The first KO round produced one clear upset when Stuart Smith won the 13th in game 3 to eliminate Moberly. Stuart had already beaten Stephen Mulliner in the block with a display of straight hitting and repeated the treatment against John-Paul to win 7-5, 3-7, 7-6. Jonathan Powe had a tough battle with Steve Leonard before winning 7-6, 4-7, 7-4 and the Burridge family duel produced an excellent close (if not entirely silent) match which the father won by 6-7, 7-5, 7-5. James Galpin started well against Rachel Gee but experience told and Rachel prevailed by 5-7, 7-4, 7-3. The other matches went with form and in straight games in favour of the higher seeds.
Will Gee displayed great power against Stephen Mulliner but had difficulty in keeping his jump shots below cloud level and the latter won by 7-4, 7-5. Stuart Smith proved that his defeats of Mulliner and Moberly were no flukes when he added a third England team scalp by beating Richard Bilton 7-6, 7-4. Jonathan Powe had beaten Ian Burridge in Block D but a missed ultra-fine cut in front of hoop 13 in game 3 proved to be a fatal error, giving Ian the win by 7-4, 6-7, 7-6. Tobi Savage and Rachel Gee had two very competitive games but Tobi's extra power was the difference and he went through by 7-6, 7-5.
The semi-finals provided a contrast. Stuart Smith never really got going against an in-form Stephen Mulliner although the 7-1, 7-1 scoreline was not a completely fair reflection of the match. It ended with Stuart producing an excellent bounding bomb jump over two balls at 7 in game 2 to avoid a whitewash and then clearing one of Stephen's balls at 8 only to peel the other!
That match was over by 11.30 while the other semi-final was enjoying a more deliberate approach. Tobi Savage looked to be continuing his excellent form and took game 1 by 7-3 and, despite determined Burridge resistance, seemed to be in control at 11 at 5-5. However, a fault when preparing to play a hampered stroke changed the balance of the game and Ian squared the match at the 13th. The decider had reached 3-2 to Ian by 1.30pm when the heavens opened and play was suspended for over an hour. The pause clearly did Tobi no harm because he won five of the next six points to advance to the final by 7-3, 6-7, 7-4 and set up a repeat of the 2016 final.
GC can be a cruel game. Tobi dominated the 2020 Open final for long stretches with accurate and powerful hitting. He has an established swing process with an excellent tempo which delivers a smoothly accelerating impact on the ball. Long hoops, long clearances and long jumps are all well within his compass.
Game 1 began just after 4 p.m. with Tobi winning the toss and placing B 3 yards south of 1. Stephen missed and Tobi ran 1 up to 2 which he quickly won. A short duel at 3 left Tobi a 6 yard rather angled hoop which he ran almost to the south boundary. Another duel at 4 was resolved by Tobi scoring at pace from the east penalty spot. 4-0 and Stephen was looking distinctly outgunned. A first miss from Tobi at 5 allowed Stephen to win 5 and 6 but the score was soon 5-2, 5-3, 6-3 and then 6-4. Stephen missed the clearance at 11 and that was 7-4 to Tobi, all in about 30 minutes. Stephen won hoop 1 in game 2 and kept his nose in front, mainly by accurate blocks and stymies and reliable hooping, and managed to square the match at hoop 11.
The decider looked like being a repeat of game 1. Tobi won hoop 1 off the start but only grovelled through. Stephen played a ball to within 2 feet of hoop 2 but left a narrow double of hoop and ball and Tobi ran the hoop from 24 yards for 2-0. This time Stephen won 3 and 4 but lost 5 and 6 to trail 4-2. A prolonged duel at 7 went to Tobi but he cut peeled Stephen's Y at 8 to make the score 5-3. Stephen's first ball to 9 was cleared but he earned a chance to run 9 from the south boundary. This hit the east wire and bounced away and Tobi than ran a superb 8 yard angled 9 with B to stop 5 yards short of 10. 6-3 up and one hand on the trophy (thereby evoking memories of the 2019 GCWC final in game 4). R was played to 3 yards SSW 10 and K to 4 yards SSW. Y missed B and Tobi had a straight 5 yard hoop for what would have been a very well-deserved victory.
Alas for Tobi, the shot went left and bounced off the wire to the middle of the north boundary. Stephen then went for 10 with R but only jawsed. K now missed a jump, also ending on the north boundary and Y played back into position but not wired from K. Tobi now declined to try and clear R with B which was arguably over-cautious given his general clearing accuracy and instead played B into position for a possible rush by K. R ran by 6 inches for 6-4. Tobi now went for the standard tactic and played K into position, followed by Y and B, with B not blocking R at K. Stephen's clearance on K hit the left edge and sent it to just north of hoop 2.
Now fate dealt Tobi an unkind blow. His clearance on Y also caught the left edge and peeled it to 2 yards SE of the peg, cutting B to 4y NE of the peg and sending K to near C3! 6-5 and Stephen played Y carefully to one yard position blocking B at 12. Tobi centre-balled Y to the south boundary, with B following through to 7 yards north of Y. R was played into 2 yard position and K was played down from C3 to join it. Stephen now cleared B to almost the east boundary. Tobi missed R and Stephen now ran 12 to make the score 6-6.
Tobi played K to 6 yards NNE of 13 and Stephen, playing Y from just south of the peg, managed to stop it 5 feet NNE of 13, almost blocking K at 13. Fate now played its final trick when B, played from near C1, stopped on the blade of grass between K and Y that blocked K at 13 and K at Y. R was played well to the west to avoid any risk of disturbing the situation and Tobi had to jump to recover the situation. The jump cleared both balls but hit the west upright and bounced away. Stephen now had a 5 footer for a somewhat undeserved victory on the balance of play but duly scored the point to take his eighth British Open title since 2000 by 4-7, 7-4, 7-6.
In the Bowl semi-final, James Galpin beat Euan Burridge 4-7, 7-3, 7-3 and qualified to meet John-Paul Moberly whose semi-final opponent, Simon Carter, had withdrawn. J-P ultimately prevailed by 7-4, 4-7, 7-4.
The youngest player by far was Jack Good, 14. In the blocks, he took games from Tudor Jenkins, Tim Jolliff, Ron Carter and Jonathan Powe. The latter was a great match with the closest-possible score - 6-7, 7-6, 7-6 to Jonathan. Jack has a great attitude and visibly improved as the event progressed. It was both very welcome and no surprise to see him win his Plate block and then defeat Tudor Jenkins in the semi-final and the improving local player, Neil Humphreys, in the final to win the Plate. Jack has a great future in croquet if he persists.