The Great lawn at the Merion Cricket Club will provide a unique venue for this year's USCA American Rules National Championships. Sixteen courts will be used - more than at any previous Nationals - all in one location on one vast lawn, rather than at various clubs and private courts as in the past. This advantage yields many benefits for both organizers and participants - not the least of which is the grand sense of occasion presented by multiplicity of court and players in front of the spectacular clubhouse.
There are now only a handful of large tennis lawns in the United States, and three of them are in the Greater Philadelphia area. Merion's Great Lawn dates from 1893, when the club, organized in 1865, moved to its present site in Haverford, Pennsylvania. The lawn was designed for Merion's cricket programs. Later came soccer and tennis, which is the main sport played on it today.
For several years, during the glory days of amateur tennis, Merion hosted the Pennsylvania Lawn Tennis Championship, a premier tournament won by such luminaries as William ("Big Bill") Tilden, Tony Trabert, Barry MacKay, Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe.
Maintaining the Great Lawn for four sports
Croquet is the fourth sport to be played on the lawn. Intensive and continuous maintenance by Merion's experienced ground crew is required to keep the Lawn in tip-top shape for all these uses. The maintenance program starts in mid-March with mowing once a week. Mowing continues, with increasing frequency, until by mid-May the Lawn is being mowed daily to a height of 1/4 inch, and this continues all summer. The Lawn is also screened each morning to remove the dew.
All during the summer, a hydrojet system is used to inject water directly into the ground. Irrigation by the sprinkler system is done as needed. There is no formula - watering is an art, and Mark Finnerty, the head groundskeeper at Merion for over 16 years, decides how much to irrigate by the "feel" of the ground. The sprinklers are also used to "syringe" the Lawn on particularly hot days to cool the grass. The Lawn is aerated in the early Fall. Plugs, 4' by 5/8', are taken out, broken up, and then spread on the grass and raked out.
With this intense maintenance, the Lawn is in peak shape for the Fall croquet tournaments. But special preparation is needed. The 1998 Nationals will use the first two of the three tiers of the Lawn, and this grass will be allowed to "rest" for several days prior to the tournament, but will still be mowed each day. The groundskeepers use this time to go over the entire Lawn, filling in low spots, and generally "hand grooming" to ensure the even surface and texture required for a national championship event.
First-time visitors to Merion are amazed to see lawns used for more active sports in top shape for the gentler sport of croquet. There are some exceptionally high quality croquet courts up and down the East coast - courts which have been designed and built especially for croquet. But there probably is no facility with as many as six or eight courts with the uniformly high quality or the sixteen courts The Merion Cricket Club will provide for the 1998 Nationals.
Players at the Nationals will also enjoy the use of the facilities in Merion's Clubhouse. The original building, built in 1896 - now with several additions - was designed by famed Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, whose signature brickwork can also be seen on the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and on buildings on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.
Those who have attended Merion's Invitational Tournaments can attest to the wonderful setting of the Merion facility on a crisp Fall day - a bright blue sky, the players in their whites scattered across 5 1/4 acres of lush green lawn, with the rust-red Victorian clubhouse in the background. There's nothing to compare with it in American croquet. Which is why a record sign-up is expected for the 1998 Nationals.
To prepare for a record number of players, Mike Weimerskirch, USCA National Director of Croquet, has designed ladders and formats to accommodate 144 players in four flights:
(The largest Championship Flight so far has been 51 players in 1997. The biggest overall roster of players was 102 in 1996.)
At the January meeting of the USCA Management Committee, a recommendation to change the pre-qualification handicap criteria was approved. Under the revision, all players with handicaps 1.0 or below at any time between the end of the previous year's National Championship and the cut-off date for entries for the current year's Nationals are pre-qualified.
The current list contains 76 players with handicaps 1 and below - it's a national "honor roll" of top-flight competitors.
Sherif Abdelwahab Tremaine Arkley Phil Arnold Matt Baird Jerry Ball Jim Bast Gar Beckstead Ray Bell Bill Berne Butch Bessette Damon Bidencope Harold Brown Archie Burchfield Bob Cherry Tom Cooper John Curington Rich Curtis Dana Dribben Garth Eliassen Jim Erwin Sal Esquivel Reid Fleming Jacques Fournier Don Fournier, Jr. Michael Gibbons Doug Grimsley im Hall Carl Hanson Neil Houghton Jay Hughes Jim Hughes Tom Huhn Peter Hull Walt Janitz Fred Jones Kiley Jones Rory Kelley Ren G. Kraft Bob Kroeger Stuart Lawrence Heidi Leseur J. Dan Lott Carl Mabee Dan Mahoney Bill Martin Dwight Mayer Leo McBride Mik Mehas John Oehrle Michael Orgill John Osborn Mack Penwell Erv Peterson John Phaneuf Richard Powell Ted Prentis R.J. Rebuschatis, Jr. Chuck Reif Pat Roach J. Ross Robinson Wayne Rodoni Kermit Rosen Britt Ruby Paul Scott Greg Shaffer Rick Sheely Charles Smith Jerry Stark Anne Taves John Taves Byron Thomas Rhys Thomas Phil Trowbridge Darrell Turner Mike Weimerskirch Alan Wolman Michael Zuro
In addition, 5 Hall of Fame Members with handicaps below 3 (Don Degnan, Bill Hoy, Dick Pearman, Archie Peck and John Young) are pre-qualified.
Official entries will be mailed in June to all pre-qualifiers. According to Natioanl Director of Croquet Mike Weimerskirch, any spots in the 64-player Championship field at the Nationals not claimed by pre- qualifiers will be filled from top-placing finishers in the Regional Championships.
[Croquet World Online Magazine will provide extensive coverage of the Merion Nationals, beginning the week before the tournament with announcement of the player rosters and preliminary blocks.]
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