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JACKSON RECLAIMS TITLE IN 1997 NEW ZEALAND OPEN CHAMPIONSHIPS
A special report for CROQUET WORLD ONLINE MAGAZINE
by New Zealand Correspondent Steve Jones


The 1997 New Zealand Open Championships were held in Auckland from 11 to 18 January. The traditional format was used, with the Open singles and doubles (the top flight, open to all grades) being played at Manurewa and Papatoetoe clubs, and the A grade events (with a handicap restriction of scratch - 2.5) being played at Pakuranga and Howick.

Auckland is the largest of New Zealand's 19 associations, and it was no surprise to see a record entry of 72, including 31 in the Open (the top grade or flight). After having to endure a cyclone on the opening day, participants enjoyed excellent weather thereafter except for the odd shower on finals day. Unfortunately, the lawn pace and surface at Papatoetoe left a lot to be desired.

Despite the large entry, some well known players were absent, including Aaron Westerby, John Prince, Greg Bryant, Joe Hogan, Brian Wislang and (from the singles) Richard Baker. Early casualties included Richard Baker (mangled fingers), Graham Beale (crook back), Sonya Stephens (car accident) and Karl Haswell (another bad back).

In the singles, Steve Jones was defending his title, won in Christchurch last year, his main challengers looking to be Bob Jackson and Paul Skinley. In the doubles, Richard Baker and Graham Beale were also defending their title, with many good pairings in opposition, including former winners Jones and Skinley in their farewell performance as a doubles combination. Overseas players included the evergreen Nelson Morrow and Jerry Guest from England (although both have strong New Zealand ties) and Rich Lamm from the Denver Croquet Club in the USA.

A FIRST FOR THE NZ OPEN - THE THREE-HOUR TIME LIMIT
The format for the Open was seven sections (or blocks) of 4 and one section of 3 (single games). The top 2 in each section progressed to the knockout stage which was best-of-3 games, no time limit, while the non-qualifiers played in the Heenan plate (section play, single games). There were also "Y" and "Z" competitions (also best of 3) for the losers (first round and second round respectively) of the knockout part of the event. The doubles were played in two sections of 8, single games with the section winners playing off in the final..

For the first time in the history of the NZ Open Championships, a 3-hour time limit was imposed in the section play of the Open and in all the doubles games.

TIME BEFRIENDS SKINLEY/JONES DUO IN FINAL PAIRING
The tournament started with the doubles. Baker and Beale began as they left off last year and made short work of their opponents to win their section without a loss. Ian Dumergue and Tony Stephens were a strong combination but succumbed to the only upset in the entire event at the hands of Robert Lowe and Jerry Guest.

In the other section, Jones and Skinley scratched their way through the field to contest the final, making Lazarus look tame in comparison. Three times the unprecidented time limit came to their rescue, not least in the final. With little time left, Jones hit the last lift and went to the peg, levelling the scores with Skinley and Baker, both on penult. Time was called just before Baker missed his lift shot, leaving Jones the farcical formality of pegging out for victory.

The A-grade event saw local player Laurie Edwards take out both the singles and doubles titles.

ALL TOP SEEDS COME THROUGH TRUE TO FORM IN OPEN GRADE
In the Open, eight players were seeded in the following order: Paul Skinley, Bob Jackson, Steve Jones, Tony Stephens, Graham Beale, Ian Dumergue, Don Reyland, and Shane Davis. All the seeds progressed to the knock-out stage, all except Reyland qualifying in 1st place. In his section, Madeleine Hadwin was expected to get 4th but came out the section winner. This was a good achievement considering her lack of recent play, and her form contributed to the only real upset in section play, which was the non-qualification of Toby Garrison, who had been expected to do well in the event.

REYLAND ASKS FOR A TIGHTER HOOP, THEN STICKS IN IT
In the first round of the best of threes, all the matches except two were completed in straight games. The first seed to fall was Reyland. He had Jackson on toast in the first game, but came to grief after peeling his partner at penult. After the peel, he noticed that the hoop was loose and asked for it to be firmed up. After the referee had taken the hoop out and replaced it tightly, Reyland proceeded to stick in it and he never took croquet again in the match! The only other seed to fall was Graham Beale, who went out to Steven Smith in three.

In the other three-game match, last year's A-grade champion Roger Dunnet took the first game from Paul Skinley, who replied with two triples. Jackson and Jones also recorded two triples in their games, Jones with two perfect scores.

The quarters onwards were played on the comparatively perfect Sonoma-Cutrer-like lawns of Manurewa and saw the top four seeds come through. Jackson lost a game to his conqueror of last year, Ian Dumergue, in an extraordinary match which ended up with the scoreline: 26-0 TP, 0-26 TP, 26-0 TP! Shane Davis took a game from Tony Stephens in a delicately balanced match. In the first semi-final, Skinley beat doubles partner, team mate, friend and rival Jones in a high quality match in which every game was completed with a triple peel. In the other semi, Jackson defeated Stephens in a three-game match in which all triple peel attempts failed.

AN OLD CHAMPION ENGINEERS A POPULAR VICTORY ON HOME TURF
In the final, Jackson had all the motivation he could dream of. Playing at his home club, he was keen to show the selectors that they had erred in leaving him out of last year's MacRobertson team. He was also attempting to equal Arthur Ross' record of 11 Open championship wins. All this showed in the first game, when he romped away to a 26-1 win, though the triple peel eluded him.

The second game looked to be going the same way until Skinley hit a shot and began exerting his influence on the match in a bid to regain the title he last won 12 years ago. Then Jackson hit back and looked certain to finish when he inexplicably missed a short return after penult and ended up on baulk with Skinley due for a lift. Then it looked a certainty for Skinley, but he too missed an easy shot, sticking in 4-back from 6 inches. Jackson gratefully accepted the gift to win 26-22 and take the title, and with it a share in the record.

Third place in the Open went to Jones, who scored an emphatic 26-0, 26-7 win over Stephens. The "Z" final was won by 1996 Sonoma-Cutrer medalist Shane Davis with a good win over Ian Dumergue, 3-26, 26-9, 26-10, while the "Y" final went to Graham Beale (despite his back problems) who beat Bulloch 26-9, 26-0. The Heenan plate was won by Jerry Guest with an exciting 26-22 win over Graeme Roberts.

The format came in for some criticism by the players. Section play with only two qualifiers meant that (this year) fifteen Open championship entrants never played a best-of-three match. This situation was not viewed as very progressive. Above all, the new time limits drew widespread condemnation, and it seems unlikely that they will remain in force in future years.

--Steve Jones


Special Correspondent Steve Jones is a frequent contributor to CROQUET WORLD ONLINE MAGAZINE through his regularly-published "New Zealand Report."


 
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