Disappointment in Florida/Fear and Loathing in West Palm Beach.
The 15th Association Croquet World Championships were held in West Palm Beach, Florida in April 2016. The field of 80 was split in to 8 blocks of 10 for an initial qualifying phase, with the top 4 from each block going through and the rest being consigned to the plate event. I travelled as Ireland's sole representative in this year's event, seeded 4th in Block H and feeling confident of improving on my previous effort in the 2013 event in London where I missed a place in the knock-out after a play-off with Ian Lines of England.
The venues being used were the very grand 12-court National Croquet Center where Ireland competed for the Carter Challenge Cup in 2009 and the PGA National, the latter being home to 5 Championship Golf courses and 4 croquet courts! The conditions in the two venues were relatively easy throughout the event, particularly in the lush settings of the PGA, (bar a couple of exceptional days where the sun had baked the courts slightly) with the fabled 4-finned Superhoops posing little trouble to most players.
I began my campaign at the PGA National against Richard Griffiths of Jersey who was bottom placed in our block, but worthy of respect having helped his side win a crucial match to win the European Team Championships in Cheltenham in recent years. Indeed Richard gained the first break and was cruising around before an unexpected failed hoop allowed me in to win my opening round. Initial nerves conquered, I set about the task of defeating Ben Rothman of California, a formers finalist in this event in 2009 and second seed in the block. After an error strewn opening I eventually found myself on a standard triple peel to win before a calamitous failure of hoop 5 halted my progress: the superhoops gained more respect from me after that! I went in to the final match of the day feeling slightly deflated having let an opportunity to defeat a higher ranked player slip away, and was duly step aside -26 by another young American croquet pro named Stephen Morgan. 1/3 was not the return I was looking for from the but I knew I could bring it back with a good Day 2.
The morning in the NCC started well with a win over American qualifier for the event Daniel Pailas who was very impressive for someone who only took up the game a couple of years ago. With two wins from four I took on the top seed in the block, Ian Dumerge from Australia. Ian is a multiple time MacRobertson Shield Test player and a very solid performer all round so it was clear I would have my work cut our to beat him. In a scrappy game I took the initial advantage and got to 4-back+peg with Ian for 2 and 4-back. Ian missed his shot and I two balled out the finish, but failed to run rover hard enough to get a rush back to the peg. Rather than risk the 10 yard peg out I retreated to corner 1 and prayed Ian would miss the 26+ yard shot I left him. Alas he grasped his lifeline and he dutifully hit and finished an excellent turn, condemning me to a cruel -2tp defeat. The last game of the day now took on huge significance as my chances of progressing without a win were slim. My opponent was Christian Carter of England and after strange opening I hit 4th turn and won +26 to keep my hopes alive. This left me on three wins from six, with six wins out of nine being the normal requirement for automatic qualification for the knockout.
The final day of the block began poorly in the NCC. Facing Alain Giraud from England, having hit 3rd turn and set a "dream leave" I quickly found myself for 1+1 facing 4-back+peg. After a few restarts I managed to hit my "last shot" and got around to 4-back myself. Alain promptly hit back and it was looking like curtains until he failed to get an effective rush to the peg and so lair up. I managed another hit to save the game and got myself to 1 and peg vs peg and peg but with a sloppy leave which allowed Alain to hit again, but then he took off the court on a croquet stroke next to my balls joined up and left my with a four-ball break to win the game! However, upon reaching 2-back three poor strokes in a row out of nowhere left me with my ball in the jaws of the hoop and with a broken mallet watching Alain peg out. With 2 games left to play and a borrowed club mallet (mercifully one similar to my own) I played the last 2 matches trying to win to force a playoff. The penultimate match vs Steve Jones of New Zealand had an all too familiar feel to it: this time having run rover needing to rush partner to position for a peg out, I managed to only clip the ball and send it behind the hoop wired from the peg! Steve then gratefully hit his last shot and finished the game leaving me knocked out of the main event barring a miracle. Too many inaccuracies and a failure to finish off hard won opportunities were my downfall, and the day ended on an extra sour note dropping my final game to Rob Wilkinson of England in short order.
Overall a very disappointing performance, and though there were improvements in my play in the plate event I ultimately failed to qualify for the knockout there too. Lessons learnt the hard way for sure, but the lessons must be taken and processed for the next time around.
I would like to thank the CAI for their support in my competing in the event, and to all the well wishers who sent me messages throughout the week: all the good will was very much appreciated. I would also like to commend the USCA, the NCC and everyone involved from the WCF on the running of an excellent event. I would also like to congratulate Stephen Mulliner, the eventual winner after a gruelling final in which he fought back to win from 2-0 down against the American hope David Maloof.
Best of luck to the GC World Team Championships team travelling to England in May, I have no doubt they will fare well and do Ireland proud!