Robert Fulford won the Golf Croquet Open Championship
A full entry met at Southwick for this year's GC Opens. The lawns continue to improve and the grass quality is excellent. The hoops were easier than I had expected, despite being set very narrowly (we had a few balls wedge). The club is being run well and has plans to upgrade its clubhouse in the future if planning permission is granted.
We started with two days of doubles. It was good to see 4 pairs from each block qualify for the knockout rather than 2 when we last played. Both blocks went to form with the top four pairs qualifying, block A being won by the new pairing of Stephen Mulliner and Jenny Clarke, whilst block B was won by Reg Bamford and the ungraded Charles Barlow. The quarter-finals provided an upset when Callum Johnson and Euan Burridge beat Ian Burridge and Rachel Gee 6-7, 7-5, 7-5. Callum's play was improving every game and Euan plays a lot of extremely impressive powerful shots. The other upset was Aston Wade and Richard Bilton beating J-P Moberly and Tobi Savage 2-7, 7-3, 7-3. So, the top two seeds were eliminated, and it was now wide open.
The semi-finals saw the Callum and Euan beat Jenny and Stephen 3-7, 7-4, 7-5 with Jenny playing worse than earlier and the boys taking full advantage. Aston and Richard beat Charles and Reg 7-3. 7-5 in the other half. With an average age under 22 years old, this was probably the youngest ever GC doubles final in England. It was an entertaining final with Callum and Euan eventually powering through the deciding game to win their first major title 4-7, 7-6, 7-1.
The singles started on day 3. In block A, Callum continued his fine form to place third from his 7th seeded position. The top 4 seeds progressed in block B, although it was won by third seed Stephen Mulliner by one net hoop over Tobi. Richard Brooks won 8 games from 7th seed to pick up plenty of handicap points. In block C, Lionel Tibble just got the better of Stu Smith to take the 4th qualifying spot and J-P won with an impressive +48 hoops despite losing to Stu. Jayne Stevens performed well to win 3 matches. Block D saw the biggest upset with the usually highly consistent Rachel Gee failing to qualify and Tim Russell winning 5 matches to qualify in second place. Jonathan Claxton did well to win three matches. The block was won by Robert Fulford - the only player to win all 7 matches in the block stage.
The last 16 had two particularly interesting matches. Tobi was tested in a tight contest with Callum, eventually prevailing 7-6, 6-7, 7-5. Tobi appears to have improved in the last three years and looks a more consistent performer. The other match was between England best two U21s, Aston Wade and Euan Burridge. Aston has a good balanced game that will make him tough to beat. Euan has enough power to keep a small country going (he jumped through hoop 6 from the south boundary in his block game against Richard Bilton), but has lapses in positional play and decision making that can allow opponents back into matches. It was an entertaining match that went to Euan 7-2, 5-7, 7-5. Both players will be looking to make deep progress at the upcoming Worlds.
In the quarter finals, Jenny won 6 consecutive hoops against Reg to take game 2 7-4 from 1-4 down, but was outplayed 7-1 in the decider. Stephen won a tight match 7-6, 4-7, 7-6 against Tobi to set up a grudge match against Reg in the semi-final. In the third, and arguably strongest quarter, J-P beat Euan 6-7, 7-1, 7-2. The last two games were J-P back to his best after a poor start to the season. The final quarter was won by Robert Fulford against Ian Burridge 7-2, 4-7, 7-4.
Sunday morning had a much quieter Southwick with a number of players having gone home. Reg never looked in danger during his 7-3, 7-4 win against Stephen. Throughout the event, Reg's positional play had been exceptional and his mid-pace clearance were pretty reliable as well. However, his hard shots and jumps weren't up to his normal standard and will be something he will be working on before trying to win another World Championship in a few weeks.
The other semi-final took a lot longer. It was a contrast in styles. Robert Fulford was taking position more than any other player and avoiding clearances of over 8 yards. Throughout the event, he never hit the ball harder than the average female player and relied on good positional and tactical play plus consistent 7 yard and less central gentle clearances to keep his opponents under pressure. JP countered this style quite well and played well enough to take the match to the deciding hoop before the 5-time AC World Champion prevailed 7-3, 5-7, 7-6. The average age of the semi-finalists was over 50, showing that anyone suggesting that the game is dominated by youngsters is writing off the experienced players too quickly.
And so, we reached the final - a re-run of so many AC finals, the two best players of our generation - Reg and Robert. For any youngsters watching, the standard of positional play was something to aspire to. The first game was won fairly comfortably by Reg 7-4 and he was first to play to 13 in the second. Rob's last ball to play to 13 hilled off Reg's ball in front of 13 and ended up running hoop 10 by 3 inches to block 13. Reg took on a 5 yard clearance that needed hitting half ball on the right, but hit half ball on the left and peeled it to lose game 2 7-6. The deciding game saw Reg take a quick 2-0 lead before Robert won 6 consecutive hoops and eventually the Championship 7-3. It was a demonstration of how to maximise performance despite a lack of power and hopefully something that shows that GC can be played by everyone, even if others are capable of hitting the ball 4 times harder.
The whole event was a pleasure to watch with such a variety of styles, techniques and tactics. The event differed from NZ because the "core" GC players (50-70) still played. In NZ, this core set of players have largely stopped entering our Nationals which are filled with 80% under 25s. Croquet needs to maintain the full age range in events and the atmosphere throughout this event was excellent. Congrats to Southwick and all their volunteers. Bring on the Worlds!