For the first time in its 11-year history the USCA International Rules National Championship is being played on public courts - three superbly maintained bowling greens which are the centerpiece of a busy municipal park near downtown Oakland, California.
Lakeside Park is a peninsula jutting into Lake Merritt, which graces the urban setting with a picture-postcard ambience that belies the reputation of the Bay Area's second largest city as a capital of crime and squalor. The park was created at the turn of the century, when Oakland's ideal weather and locale had made it a favorite residence of upscale Californians. The three bowling greens date from 1904 and surround a clubhouse that is a registered landmark.
On the opposite lakeshore is the Clarion Suites Lake Merritt Hotel, also a landmark and recently restored to its original Art Deco splendor. The hotel is giving the tournament a cocktail party to dedicate the "croquet suite" in recognition of the USCA's patronage for four straight years - in one USCA Regional and two California State Championships and now in the first nationally sanctioned event to be held in Oakland.
Oakland may be the most underrated venue in croquet
The national championship will help to spread the secret that California croquet players have known for years - that this very public croquet venue is a beautiful and exciting place to hold a major tournament. Two of the three lawns front on the only street that circles through the park, so thousands of passers-by - most of them on foot - will have an opportunity to notice that, for once, these greens are occupied by mallet-wielding gentlemen several decades younger, on average, than the usual tenants.
One of the top-flight favorites, in fact, is only 15. Jacques Fournier, the Phoenix, Arizona "wunderkind", in recent years has gained not just in height and maturity, but also in stature in the croquet world. In July he won the prestigious Meadowood Invitational, and he'll be representing the United States in November in the World Championships in Bunbury, Australia - along with his older brother, Don Fournier, Jr.
The odds-on favorite to win is Meadowood's croquet pro, Jerry Stark, also Bunbury-bound. Stark recently won The Resort At the Mountain Invitational (a star-studded purse event at the new resort on the slopes of Mount Hood in Oregon) and is showing top form. He has played before on the hard, dry, and dauntingly fast lawns of Lakeside Park.
A third American who will also be honing his competitive edge in preparation for the Australian games is South California's Mik Mehas. Mehas finished second in the tournament in 1996 (to Canada's Leo McBride) and can usually be counted on to fight his way to the final rounds.
California and Arizona players favored to reach final rounds
The top flight, with 18 players, constitutes one of the strongest International Rules events in the U.S. this year and restores this national tournament to its former eminence, after a lapse of several years. In 1995 and 1996, the championship was held in Kentucky and was not able to attract a broad national representation. Not since 1994, when the tournament was in Pinehurst, North Carolina, has the tournament had a top flight worthy of a national championship. In that year - as in 1997 - eighteen players competed in the top flight, which was won by Tony Stephens of New Zealand, with John Taves of Seattle in second and Jerry Stark and Mik Mehas sharing third.
Only one player in this year's championship can boast of having already won it. David Openshaw, the "old man" of the British international teams took the top trophy in 1991 at the Meadow Club in Southampton, New York, and he could do it again in Oakland in 1997.
Although the tournament is strong, several top players are notably missing, including John Taves and Wayne Rodoni, ranked No. 1 and No. 3 respectively in International Rules among the Americans. These champions, like other strong local players - Carl Hanson and Sal Esquivel among them - are prevented by work and family obligations from playing in a five-day event.
Nevertheless, the tournament benefits from the participation of many Westerners, and most observers would be surprised if one of them did not win it. The presence of so many strong International Rules players in the West was a major reason for bringing the tournament West to California for the third time in 11 years.
How to produce a great tournament and not make a profit
But like many other USCA-sanctioned tournaments not held at the headquarters venue in Palm Beach, this event will not produce any income for the national organization - because it isn't big enough to cover the expenses of what is intended to be a fund-raiser. Even though locally donated parties, goods, and services help to keep expenses down, the major expense of bringing to town the National Director of Croquet virtually knocks the tournament into the red. Most people would agree that the National Director should officiate at a titled tournament, so to maintain this standard, it may be necessary in the future to have the tournament at national headquarters - until the sport grows to support bigger numbers, or until the International Rules game attracts a great enough following in America to produce a "social flight" which could support the tournament financially.
In the meantime - although it's too bad the tournament will not produce income for a financially pressed national organization - a relative scarcity of players in the social flight translates to abundant court space and playing time for the eighteen players intent on covering themselves in glory in the Championship Flight and battling through to the finals. More than glory is involved: This event is one of the few that is considered in the selection of future international teams. The top prize grants automatic entry to some of the most prestigious invitationals in the world - including the Chatooga Challenge, which is the top purse event of 1998 yet to be announced.
The action starts on Wednesday, September 17, and ends with finals on Sunday, September 21. Each day's play will begin in Oakland at 8:00 AM and last until near sunset. On some days, courts in San Francisco's Stern Grove will also be used.
CROQUET WORLD ONLINE MAGAZINE will cover the tournament in several despatches by tournament director Mike Weimerskirch and manager Bob Alman.
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