The Sonoma-Cutrer World Singles Championship, which for the last seventeen years has been held at Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards in Sonoma County, has just been sent packing by the winery's corporate owners, Brown-Forman of Louisville, Kentucky.
This year's World Singles Championship was scheduled for May 12-17, but tournament sponsors and managers are scrambling to find another site in the California wine country, north of San Francisco. There aren't many options. Meadowood Resort in the Napa Valley has two championship courts, and there are a few private courts in the area.
To further complicate the issue, Brown-Forman and Sonoma-Cutrer intend to hold a new tournament, possibly a one-day invitational, on May 17, the date originally set for the World Singles final.
Sonoma-Cutrer's new tournament, whatever the format, will apparently exclusively benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which has been a primary beneficiary of previous World Championships, sharing the bounty with other Bay Area charities including the Polly Klaas Foundation.
The World Singles Championship, an extraordinarily successful fundraiser, last year drew 1,200 spectators and raised over $1 million at its finals-day luncheon and wine auction, which has become a major event in the Bay Area's annual social calendar.
The split will open competition among sponsors, managers, and contributors, including the numerous Sonoma and Napa wineries that have donated fine wines for the tournament's fundraising auctions.
Brown-Forman bought Sonoma-Cutrer in 1999 and merged the winery into Brown-Forman Wine Estates, which includes Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County as well as other wineries in California and Australia.
It has been one and a half years since Brown-Forman gave the pink slip to Sonoma-Cutrer founder Brice Jones but promised that the World Croquet Championship would continue to have a home at Sonoma-Cutrer.
"Brown-Forman is a great corporate citizen", the corporation's director of communications Phil Lynch then told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, "and the people of Sonoma County can rest assured that Sonoma-Cutrer will continue to play a role in sponsoring these important events."
What about the courts? The tournament shuffle raises the question of Brown-Forman's commitment to croquet in general and whether other events will continue to be held there. The Sonoma-Cutrer Croquet Club is continuing to use the courts-for the time being-and currently has 25 members.
The Sonoma-Cutrer World Singles Championship debuted in August, 1986, four years after the winery was founded. Jones took the new tournament under his wings and invited top players from around the world to come and participate, and the championship rapidly gained a reputation as the world's premier croquet event.
Tom McDonnell of Santa Rosa, a croquet vet from the classic Hollywood days who moved with his family to Santa Rosa, helped establish croquet in San Francisco and at Meadowood Resort, and introduced Jones to the potential of the game shortly after the winery's main building was completed in 1981.
Jones was sold. In January, 1984, he began construction on two oversized championship courts below the winery's wine-tasting terrace and surrounded them with magnificent stone embankments. The courts have been considered for many years to be the best in the world. One year, in fact, many of the championship's foreign players grumbled that the courts were too perfect, and therefore too easy for top-level championship play. Triple peels were common during each tournament and became the standard to strive for until the more intense quadruple, quintuple, and sextuple peels debuted in top-level play.
The first Sonoma-Cutrer championship in 1986 was won by Stephen Mulliner of England. For the most part the competition has been dominated by foreign players, despite occasional runs by American players. In 1991 Jim Bast made it to the final and was about to win, but over-rolled the last hoop after peeling partner and had to shoot off court. David Maugham took advantage of the misstep and won the title. In 1999 Jacques Fournier, then seventeen, became the first American - and the youngest ever - to win a world championship.