BOB ALMAN: When you announced the North American Open for 2006, what immediately came to mind is "This looks very much like a revival of the Sonoma-Cutrer World Croquet Championship." That's what makes it such big news. It's in the same May time-slot as the S-C World Championship, it's offering purses which in the croquet world are huge - not as big as the old S-C championship, but bigger than anyone else's today; it has the same high-profile courtside wine auction and I presume the same ambition to raise a million dollars for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Am I right so far? Have I left anything out? In essence, aren't we all obliged to think that this is a sort of revival or recreation of the spirit - and a lot of the substance - of the old SCWCC?
MIKE ORGILL: The 2006 North American Open is not a revival of the late, lamented World Croquet Championship at Sonoma-Cutrer - and it is the new edition of the North American Open, which was created by Jacques Fournier and Rory Kelley of Arizona some years ago and has now been entrusted to the Sonoma-Cutrer Croquet Club, since those two gentlemen have found it difficult to continue with it on their own. In the past the event has been held in various places in Arizona and California, and it has usually been held around Labor Day weekend.
BOB: So you made the suggestion to Jacques and Rory....
MIKE: It was kind of like that. As you know, since the demise of the WCC, the Make-A-Wish charity auction has been a stand-alone one-day event. Last year the Sonoma-Cutrer Winery and the Make-A-Wish organizers expressed interest in having the Sonoma-Cutrer Croquet Club organize and run a tournament during the week leading into the Saturday Make-A-Wish charity auction.
BOB: Which gives the whole week basically the same shape as the old SC World Championship,. with the big auction on the last day! So Mike, it's okay if you're describing this like a responsible corporate mouthpiece, for whatever reason, but the truth is that it looks like the new North American Open plus the charity auction is going as far as it can go to recreate the spirit and substance of those glory days...
MIKE: Because putting those events together works for everyone, for a number of reasons. In years past the club had helped Make-a-Wish with organizing and running a golf croquet pro-am tournament on the Friday before their Saturday event. A final exhibition match was held on Saturday for the past few years. The golf croquet event went well, and the winery and the charity foundation began to see the merit in having a larger croquet event running into the Saturday event. Sonoma-Cutrer Club members agreed that this would be a good idea. And yes, we wanted to have an important croquet event at the winery again, everybody did, and the third week of May was a great time for it. Since we already ran the North American Open, it was a natural fit. Everyone associated with the North American Open in the past endorsed the plan.
BOB: Well, that's the kicker, you moved it from November, and now it's the same time of year...
MIKE: The very same third week of May as the old SC World Championship, that's right.
BOB: Which used to be followed by the San Francisco Open, approximately, and which is now followed about two weeks later with the Resort Invitational in Oregon. Was the proximity - in time and geography - with the Resort Invitational an element of the planning? And don't you think this will encourage the very top rank of players around the world to come early and play in the North American Open, too?
MIKE: No, I didn't have the Resort Invitational in mind. I notice that it's being held two weeks after our tournament, but I haven't heard that the players have been announced. Two years ago the North American Open was held the week before the Invitational, and some great international players played in both events. Then the following year the Resort Invitational dates changed. We're not depending on any other event for the success of the North American Open.
BOB: Surely it's no accident that you have set the purse amount to be the highest of any event in the croquet world, by a small margin. It's almost as much as the old Sonoma-Cutrer World Championship, in fact....
MIKE: It's slightly less. If you count the fact that the WCC paid for travel and hotel expenses, the players are actually getting much less. I think the total purse for the old WCC exceeded $6000, with first place getting $5000, plus the trophies were probably nicer than the ones we will offer. We're offering just over $6000, with $3000 for first place.
BOB: But let's be realistic. The most likely winners of this purse are players at or near the top of the world rankings, if you can get them here. Surely you expect them to be attracted by this comparatively huge purse - in addition to the nostalgic value of playing competitive croquet at maybe the most beautiful croquet venue in the world.
MIKE: I don't argue the fact that the purpose of the purse was to attract the top players. The club debated whether it was better to compensate a few top players for coming, or offer prize money to be won by the best competitors, and we decided offering prize money would be the fairest and best way to do it.
BOB: Okay, so to get absolutely clear on the likely appeal of this purse tournament to the top players, we need to talk about two more things: the format, and the size of the field of players. First, the format. Will you acknowledge that the Patmor Draw gave Americans - who were maybe over-represented - a better chance of winding up on top in the WCC than the more rigorous format of the WCF World Croquet Championship would permit? And would you also let us know what format the new North American Open is proposing to use?
MIKE: I really don't think the WCC format gave Americans an advantage. In eighteen years five Americans played in the final game: Bast, Osborn, Rodoni and Stark, and one, Jacques Fournier, won the tournament. Those guys are among the best American croquet players of the past two decades and they earned their way into the final game. The WCC was a different tournament than the WCF WCC; it was an invitational more like the golf Masters tournament rather than a representative world championship. We haven't settled on the format yet, but I do know that we will have a best two-out-of-three final match. Our aim is to give players the maximum number of games.
BOB: Mike, I'm so certain of the appeal of your tournament to the big players all over the world that I'm going to assume for a moment that they're going to beat down your door to get in - if not this year, then next. So here's what all those players on the mid-slopes of the world championship want to know: what is the maximum number of players in the field? And maybe a related question: I think one of the great things about the Sonoma-Cutrer World Championship its first years, in the late eighties, was that it used other courts in the area, especially Meadowood, to make the formatting and scheduling work better. Is that possibility in mind for this year - that is, can you make a schedule that lets you use more than just the two courts at Sonoma-Cutrer?
MIKE: As of now we are planning to use the Meadowood courts for some of the block games early in the week. This will give us more flexibility in scheduling matches late in the challenge round.
BOB: Good, so how large is the field?
MIKE: We're planning for 20 players.
BOB: Only 20? I'm surprised, that's smaller than the old Sonoma-Cutrer World Championship...
MIKE: Well, Bob, this is a different tournament. We're planning to have matches at the end of the week for semis and final, and that takes up more time than the original WCC, which was mostly single timed games. Two blocks of ten take a lot of court space! Also, we have to leave room for the golf croquet pro-am.
BOB: Can you tell me who some of the players are?
MIKE: Sure. At this point [mid-February] we've confirmed 18 of the 20.
BOB: So soon after the announcement? I'm surprised, I would have thought you'd wait to see the rankings of people interested, and then select from the top. Which brings me to the next question: Can you tell me who the 18 players are?
MIKE: Sure, as of now we have confirmed, in alpha order: Jim Audas - who is the defending champion of the North American Open, Paul Bennett, Jim Butts, Brian Cumming, David Dill, Doug Grimsley, Rory Kelley, Rich Lamm, Leo McBride, Mik Mehas, Johnny Mitchell, Stephen Mulliner, Erv Peterson, Ben Rothman, Martyn Selman, Charles Smith, Jerry Stark, Carl Uhlman.
BOB: Okay, well that's certainly a fine field of players for any tournament in America, with many American and Canadian national champions, plus Stephen Mulliner from England. But, again, I'm surprised and puzzled that you didn't hold out longer. Because I think a lot more top foreign players would have come over to "go for the gold" if you'd given them a little more time and notice.
MIKE: Well, I can't say anything yet, but I'm pretty sure I can promise some major "star value" in the final two entries, Bob - players whose record will give them every good reason to think they have a very good chance to walk away with $3,000.
BOB: Okay, good enough for now. So let's get to other comparisons. Do the main sponsors of the old SCWCC also sponsor this tournament: That is, Make-A-Wish and Sonoma-Cutrer?
MIKE: No. The old WCC was sponsored by the Sonoma-Cutrer Winery, Make-A-Wish, the Polly Klass Foundation, Mercedes Benz, and other miscellaneous sponsors over the years. But with this event, it's the Sonoma-Cutrer Croquet Club that sponsors and manages the North American Open, with the kind assistance of the Sonoma-Cutrer Winery and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. All direct financial support comes from the croquet club. Our model is different, since we could not recreate the wonders of the old tournament without more financial support than we're currently equipped to give.
BOB: Mike, you're a stubborn guy. You are still insisting that the 2006 North American Open is not really an attempt to recreate or revive the old WCC, aren't you?
MIKE: I'm saying that this is a new tournament created and produced by the Sonoma-Cutrer Croquet Club. We intend to create a new, major world tournament, and this is our first edition. The old S-C World Croquet Championship was an invitational, something like the Masters tournament in golf, and we are operating in that tradition. Along the way we will augment and support the Make-a-Wish charity auction that now exists. We will continue to run a golf croquet pro-am tournament in conjunction with the Make-A-Wish charity auction. Obviously, this event does have a lot of the elements of the SCWCC, but this tournament will succeed on its own terms.
BOB: This first year will set the tone and tell the story, but I think it can be a very big event. Going in as a player, you know you have a great venue, you're pretty sure it will be managed well, and if you're near the top of the rankings, you have a very reasonable expectation of paying your way with prize money, it's right at the beginning of the Northern Hemisphere season, when a lot of the MacRob players want to get themselves in top shape for a good playing season and for the MacRob itself this year in November.... How can it miss? Tell the truth, Mike, what's your minimum expectation; and just how great do you think this event can be if your maximum projections are met?
MIKE: This year is very much a trial run for this new version of the North American Open, and so far, so good. We're already virtually booked up with good players. Now we need to see if the economics we've projected for a new kind of purse tournament can work. We need to see if we mesh with the charity event and if we can raise the visibility of the tournament in the non-croquet universe by its association with the Make-A-Wish event. We also need to see if a small club like ours can really make this tournament work. It's very much an experiment. But I think it will work and I see this tournament becoming very big indeed if we continue to offer the same level of prize money. It will be different from both the old WCC and the current Resort Invitational that is a very elite invitational that took its model from the WCC.
To answer your question directly, my minimum expectation is a tournament like the one we will produce this year: a twenty-person tournament with a mid-four-figure purse. If the stars align I think we could have a tournament the size of the old WCC with a five-figure purse. But I can't dream about that too much. We've got enough to deal with running a very real tournament this year.
BOB: You're properly cautious and conservative with your predictions. I'm not, and I have a great record at predicting. I say that unless you go out of your way to screw this up, this is going to be one of the two or three most popular events in the croquet world for the best players. I wish you luck, and I'm looking forward to giving the 2006 North American Open the "full treatment" in coverage this May, along with the world-class Resort Invitational in Oregon that follows it.
A NOTE ON MIKE ORGILL: Mike started playing croquet in the early 80s as a pioneer of the San Francisco Croquet Club and one of its main organizers and tournament directors. He was the founding editor with Hans Peterson of the short-lived Croquet Magazine in 1987, and the founding co-editor of www.Croquetworld.com with Bob Alman. Since 1995, he has served as the president of the Sonoma-Cutrer Croquet Club and was the tournament director of the old Sonoma-Cutrer World Croquet Championship from 1995 until its final year. He is recently retired from corporate life and lives near Sonoma-Cutrer with his wife Helen.
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