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by Bob Alman

For the fifth time in its 20-year history, the United States Croquet Association National Championships will be held in Florida. The culminating event of the main playing season, October 20-26, is being directed, for the first time, from the USCA's headquarters in Wellington, Florida. The Palm Beach Polo Club, with its USCA headquarters offices and five lawns, is the primary venue and site of the finals at week's end. Four courts at PGA National will be used, as well as two courts each at The Breakers and the Beach Club.

The tournament is big, strong, and a financial winner for the USCA, with 102 players in four flights. The 1996 nationals signal a significant turn-around in the fortunes of the national association, which started the year with shaky finances, some unexpected red ink in major tournaments, and some thorny organizational problems.

CROQUET WORLD ONLINE MAGAZINE will provide timely online reports three or four times during the tournament from tournament director Nate Weimerskirch, croquet pro at USCA headquarters. These detailed reports will include the block results for singles and doubles, news of the survivors of the play-offs, and stories on the final matches and winners.

Weimerskirch has designed preliminary block play in the Championship Flight for six blocks of seven players each. The top seeds in each block total in the minus range - the lowest being Johnny Osborn at Minus One. The aggregate handicap for the top 18 is only Plus Five. This is clearly a strong tournament. Here's how the blocks settle out:

Wayne Rodoni
Carl Mabee
Richard Powell
Bob Cherry
Dick Brackett
Bubbie Grimsley
Phil Fusz
John Osborn
Archie Burchfield
Fred Jones
Gar Beckstead
Don Degnan
John Dill
Jim Houser
Mik Mehas
Harold Brown
Rich Curtis
Rick Sheely
Tom Hughes
Jackie Jones
Derrick Robinson

Bill Berne
Jim Hughes
Dwight Mayer
Brit Ruby
John Young
Mark Najarian
Carl Larkin
Doug Grimsley
Jim Hall
Pat Roach
John Currington
John Oehrle
Brian Cumming
David Barr
Greg Shaffer
John Phaneuf
Byron Thomas
John Fournier
Bill Martin
Neil Houghton
Bill Mead

New to Championship Flight play are some up-and-coming players whose relatively high handicaps may not reflect their actual strength. "I look for several young players in this group to impress," Tournament Director Weimerskirch remarks. "I predict the group of Mark Najarian, Brian Cumming, Bill Mead, Phil Fusz, and Jim Houser will pull some upsets, and at least two of them will make it into the final 24."

Family and business obligations always prevent attendance of some of the continent's strongest players, who have limited time for even the top tournaments. The highest-ranked players in the U. S. not playing this year are Jerry Stark and John Taves, star performers for the U.S. team at the MacRobertson Shield in England this year.

A surprising number of former champions still active in croquet are also not playing this year: 4-time champion Archie Peck, 3-time winner Reid Fleming, 2-time winner Richard Pearman, and one-time champions Ray Bell, Jim Bast, Damon Bidencope, Teddy Prentis, and Mack Penwell.

The only former champions competing are John Osborn (winner in 1987 and 1991), Carl Mabee, 1994 champion, and Wayne Rodoni, 1995 winner and holder.

Only one woman is in Championship Flight singles - Jackie Jones, at a handicap of 2.5, the longest of long-shots. Billie Jean Berne will play Championship Flight doubles, however, third-seeded in her block with husband Bill Berne.

Kentucky tobacco farmer Archie Burchfield, ironically, is representing, more than any other player, the "good old days" of formative USCA croquet, having won the doubles as long ago as 1982 with his son Mark, and again in 1987 with Damon Bidencope. He has been playing well lately, most notably as winner of the Firestone Invitational in August. He is not to be counted out as a contender.

Carl Mabee has not been a big winner since his championship triumph in 1994, and would therefore be considered a long shot.

Bill Berne has enjoyed a good playing year, having recently joined the small circle of Minus handicap players, at -1/2. He would have to be considered in the odds. Among the Zero handicaps, Greg Shaffer (runner-up in 1995), John Pheneuf, Jim Hughes, and Doug Grimsley have shown under tournament pressure that they also have the stuff to break through.

Taking one more cut at trying to predict the most likely winners and placers in 1996, we can point to the top finishers in the 1995 nationals, in this order: Wayne Rodoni, Greg Shaffer, John Osborn, Harold Brown, Don Fornier, Mik Mehas, Bill Berne, and Archie Burchfield. With the single exception of Don Fornier, they're all back again, they're all handicapped at 0.5 or lower, and each of them has a decent a shot at winning the title.

Any reasonable estimate of the favorites to win would have to put the money on the two players who have consistently been at the top of the American rules game in their regions for a number of years: Johnny Osborn in the East, winner of the Palm Beach Invitational and the Mid-Atlantic Regional; and Wayne Rodoni, who just may have the highest winning percentage in top tournaments of any current player stretching back for several years, having won all the "big three" in both singles and doubles in that period: the USCA Nationals, the Arizona Open, and the San Francisco Open.

The top seeds of four blocks of six teams in doubles are: Wayne Rodoni and Mik Mehas; John Osborn and Doug Grimsley; Carl Mabee and John Phaneuf; and Jim Hughes and Bob Kroeger.

Making odds on championship doubles is easy: First, there's Rodoni/Mehas; then, there's everybody else. The statistics tell you that Rodoni/Mehas are the most formidable doubles team of recent croquet times. They hold the national title, as well as the Arizona Open title, and the San Francisco Open title. In seven outings in Arizona, they have won four times, placing second once and third twice. If there is a "sure thing" at the 1996 national croquet championship - and of course, there isn't - it's a Rodoni/Mehas win in doubles.

But it must be noted that this great doubles partnership seldom win on a steam-roller. They were third in their block in the '95 nationals and had a couple of 1-point wins on their way to the championship. They lost in '93 to Kroeger/Hughes team, and they could do it again. The experienced team of Carl Mabee and John Phaneuf took doubles in 1994, and they could do it again.

Championship American rules doubles is, perhaps, the most compelling spectator show in the sport. The players seldom display the finesse one would expect of them playing alone in singles. Typically, the games are unpredictable, rife with breakdowns and missed opportunities, and....well, messy.

If Rodoni/Mehas plan to repeat their 1995 victory, they can look back at plenty of consecutive-year partnership wins in the nationals. It was first done by the father/son team of Teddy and Ned Prentis, way back in 1980/81; Ray Bell and Dana Dribben did it in 1985/86; and multiple national champion Reid Fleming did it with British player Debbie Cornelius in '90 and '91.

Among the top-seeded 18 players in the Championship Flight of 42 singles (down to the 1-handicap level) given any reasonable chance of winning, the regional breakdown is heavily weighted to the South an Mid-Atlantic regions, who have 12 of the 18 places. Each of the Southwest and Northwest regions has only two representatives, while the Midwest and Northwest can boast only one each.

With 12 players handicapped at 0.5 or lower - and even figuring in the "handicap slide" of a half-point a year - this has to be counted as one of the strongest fields in recent years, if not the strongest, equaling the 1995 field of the nationals in California.

In the 90's the USCA National Championship has been sometimes ranked below the Arizona Open and the San Francisco Open in terms of playing strength at the top, but now the tournament has regained its historic stature as the most prestigious American Rules players' tournament of the year.

The Championship Flight will play out the doubles blocks on Sunday and Monday, with twelve teams emerging; the top 2 finishers in each of the four blocks will have a double life in the finals round, and the third-place finishers will have a single life. The final twelve will play out the elimination ladder on Tuesday and Thursday, up to the final game.

Doubles finals in all flights will be played Thursday at the Palm Beach Polo Club. Singles finals in the top three flights will be played there on Saturday, October 26.

Watch this space for continuing timely coverage of the 1996 USCA Nationals.

CROQUET WORLD ONLINE MAGAZINE thanks tournament director Nate Weimerskirch and the USCA headquarters staff for their assistance in preparing these reports.

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