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by Bob Alman

The USCA's four-year-old handicap tracking system has proven its worth as a ranking mechanism as well, with Osborn, Fulford, Rodoni, Taves, Mehas, and Berne at the top.

There is only one American player handicapped at "Minus One", and his name is John C. Osborn, son the founder of USCA croquet and one of the longest-lived champions of the sport. Osborn won the requisite number of Handicap Tracking Points in the process of winning the USCA Mid-Atlantic Regionals in Wilmington, Delaware - a tournament he has virtually "owned" since his first regional win there in 1984.

Osborn led the old USCA Grand Prix ranking for many years, including 1992, when that system was retired. The old Grand Prix awarded points for playing in USCA sanctioned events ranging from club championships and invitationals to USCA regionals and the nationals, using the best nine events in the final computation. In the final year, Osborn was trailed by Robert Yount and Mike Gibbons. All the top three had played in at least nine qualifying Grand Prix events that year.

Designed to encourage and reward players for competing in sanctioned USCA events, the old Grand Prix helped the fledgling sport to grow. The system came under increasing criticism in the early nineties, however, because it was not seen as an accurate mechanism for ranking players according to their actual relative strengths. Although award of points was heavily weighted towards the top performers, participation in the sanctioned events without regard to performance was also rewarded with points. And although none but very good players could rise to the top 10 or 20 positions, some younger players prevented by their work and family life from playing in many events felt shut out of the system.


Nevertheless, when the conversion to the new system of Handicap Tracking Points took place in 1993, the old Grand Prix rankings were used largely as a basis for getting it started. Johnny Osborn started out on top, in a small, golden circle of Zeros. He quickly proved his merit under the new system, playing often and playing well. He was the first player to achieve a Minus One-Half handicap in 1994.

Further validating his ranking at the top is CROQUET WORLD'S "New American Grand Prix," introduced this year with the modest aim of tracking the results of the top players in 15 major events each year. In that ranking, with only four Grand Prix events remaining in the year, Osborn is tied in the lead with Wayne Rodoni and Leo McBride, closely trailed by Mik Mehas. [See "The New American Grand Prix" at this Web site..]


Closely trailing Osborn as the 1996 season draws to a close are a select group of One-Halfs who could all earn before the end of the year the necessary 28 Tracking Points to catch up to Osborn's trail-blazing Minus One. Of the four one-halfs, Wayne Rodoni of San Francisco and John Taves of Seattle are closest to the mark, having earned half the Tracking Points necessary to reach Minus One. USCA president Bill Berne and Mik Mehas of Palm Springs have also reached the one-half level.


Robert Fulford, the young British player who has dominated the top spot in the world rankings for several years - and who travels frequently and often plays in USCA American Rules tournaments - has also reached the Minus One level in the most recent handicap list update. It is conceivable, if Fulford continues his recent rate of play in the U.S., that he could become the first non-American to reach the solitary pinnacle of the U.S. ranking at Minus One and One Half.

The new USCA Handicap Tracking System, implemented during the tenure of Billie Jean Berne as National Handicapping Chairman, was not designed as a zero-based system, as it also tends to reward players for frequency of play - but to a much lesser degree than the old system. To lower the handicap, a player must accumulate at least 28 "Tracking Points" by playing in sanctioned USCA events. A player may win as many as eight Tracking Points by defeating a player with a lower handicap, but can never lose more than four tracking points in a defeat. Therefore, over time, the entire system is designed to "slide" ever lower, unless there are across-the-board periodical adjustments.


At the current rate of "handicap slide," the system sinks a half point every 2 years (or a full point since its introduction in 1993).

The "minus handicap", however, is a feature of every national ranking system in the world. In fact, the new USCA system has proven to be very workable in its first four years and must be deemed, in a sport known for contentiousness, a success. USCA headquarters pro Nate Weimerskirch, who sees all the glitches up close, vouches for the system's basic soundness: "I was very skeptical at first. It's working far better than I thought it would at first. It's certainly far superior to the old Grand Prix as a ranking of players."


The only complaints of consequence have occurred as a result of slow reporting and slow recording of handicaps at USCA headquarters. Reporting is always the responsibility of tournament managers and directors. Recording of tracking points, under the supervision of the current Handicapping Chairman Steve Johnston and Weimerskirch, has improved dramatically in 1996. When mistakes and delays skew the results, Weimerskirch has been diligent in making the necessary corrections and adjustments.

The handicaps are also being more frequently updated and published, not only in the USCA CROQUET BULLETIN, but also on the USCA Web site, which posts a complete handicap update approximately monthly.

In the most recent handicap update, Weimerskirch reports some remarkable statistics which attest to the stability of 4-year-old system over time. Before breaking through to the 1.5 level, player Tom Hughes established the record for "most games at the same handicap" - 215 matches as a 2.0. Rob Currier may soon break that record; his streak as a 2.0 now stands at 204 games.

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