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Major players in North Carolina
pioneer the future of formal
Golf Croquet team selections

by Jeff Soo with thanks to Michael Albert and Eric Sawyer
photos by Don Buebendorf, Lake Toxaway Mallet Club
Posted October 11, 2015

Country Club Croquet spreading like wildflowers in Western North Carolina
Lake Toxaway Country Club
Burlingame Country Club

North Carolina has long been a stronghold of top players in USCA croquet, and the rapid and sustained growth of "country club croquet" in the resort area of the western mountains of the state has only confirmed its importance. Ten clubs in close proximity on the "plateau" boast 1400 players. USCA founder Jack Osborn would have considered those clubs and those players--retired, prosperous, and definitely of the elite class--ideal for developing the sport. In the vanguard of the Golf Croquet boom, they have funded their national team, and many will go to England to cheer them on in the spring at the World Croquet Federation's Golf Croquet World Teams Championship. Could this be done anywhere else besides America? Why not?

The first day was the most important one

It began by pairing eight visiting "pro" players against sixteen local "ams" in a combination Team USA fundraiser and playing clinic and tournament, combining fun with competition, breaking down the barriers that usually separate players of different skill levels. After the Pro-Am competition, the fun and fellowship continued with a Crazy Croquet contest, silent auction, and cocktail party. In all, the combined events netted over $23,000, enough to fully fund the team traveling to England for the 2016 Golf Croquet World Teams Championship (GCWTC). And just for the record: Sherif Abdelwahab and Dick Boger were winners of the Pro-Am.

The Lake Toxaway Country Club, with abundant space for play as well as spectators, was an ideal site for this trail-blazing event, combining fund-raising, socializing, and top-level competition in Golf Croquet.

Michael and Karen Albert watch the beginning of the Pro Am. Michael, president of the Western North Carolina District for the USCA, pioneered croquet in the area at several facilities and organized and coordinated the week's activities.
The seed for the four-day Western North Carolina Golf Croquet Challenge was planted in June during the USCA Golf Croquet National Championships, also held at Lake Toxaway Country Club. Abdelwahab had the idea of holding another top-level Golf Croquet tournament later in the season, to give the Team USA selectors a final chance to look at the candidates for the Golf Croquet World Team Championships before the selection deadline in October. He suggested a venue in Florida.

But local croquet bigwigs George Enochs (co-founder with his wife Jane of the Lake Toxaway Mallet Club) and Michael Albert (co-founder with his wife Karen of the croquet programs at Cedar Creek Racquet Club and Trillium, and current Western North Carolina District President) said, "Why not have it here?" Jeff Soo suggested adding a Pro-Am, similar to the one he had organized in conjunction with the 2012 Solomon Trophy, which had proved to be a big hit with "pros" and "ams" alike. The Western North Carolina district, where Golf Croquet is played by around 1400 players at ten clubs, seemed the obvious place to produce a version of that format for Golf Croquet.

Mobilizing the clubs, the volunteers, the venues,
the sponsors

Albert volunteered to head up the Pro-Am and immediately set to work. Aided by the marketing expertise of Highlands Country Club members Dick Boger and Mary Ann Hardman, Albert contacted all ten of the area croquet clubs, requesting an opportunity to appear before the members to make a presentation promoting the Pro-Am. Despite the short notice, he was able to schedule personal appearances at eight of the ten clubs, garnering commitments to play in the Pro-Am as well as independent donations.

The president of the Lake Toxaway Country Club welcomes the Pro Am crowd. David Dew's club and the nearby Burlingame Country Club donated lawns for the event and made available club facilities to players and guests.

Nancy Albers, member of the Trillium club, used her extensive network of local business connections to drum up items for the silent auction. Karen Weihs, renowned local artist and also a Trillium member, offered to create and donate an original croquet-themed painting for sealed bidding at the auction. West Coast Golf Croquet maven Eric Sawyer provided inspiration and advice on setting up a "Crazy Croquet" course, and Don Oakley of Oakley Woods Croquet provided needed equipment and donated a mallet for the silent auction.

Pro Ben Rothman, sporting an impressive growth of beard reminiscent of the late Jerry Stark, begins a game against Sherif Abdelwahab and Dick Boger. Rothman's partner is Chris Weihs.

The Lake Toxaway Country Club offered to host the event. The management of the club have been stalwarts in promoting the sport and making their two-lawn venue available to host tournaments from the local level to the nationals. This kind of management foresight, combined with a prosperous player population with a remarkably diverse range of talents and skills have made the Lake Toxaway Country Club and the Western North Carolina Mountain district the Golf Croquet destination in America.

The obligatory group portrait shows all the Pro Am players on a perfect fall day in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

The one-day Pro-Am fundraiser


The growth of Golf Croquet and especially the creation of events like the Lake Toxaway Pro Am fundraiser and tournament has created a new environment for our International Golf Croquet Teams. In the not too distant past, we have struggled to find enough players to represent us in International play. That has drastically changed as a result of the expanded interest in Golf Croquet across the country but especially in North Carolina. The time has come for the USCA to consider adopting a Selection Eights type format for Golf Croquet similar to what we have for Association Croquet. It's always a challenge to find a good time and location for a new major event, but it would be hard not to consider Western North Carolina for this one.
- Johnny Mitchell, USCA president

The competition was scheduled into six rounds, with a lunch break in the middle. Each "pro" played all six rounds and each "am" played in alternate rounds, in a pre-drawn Waterford format that allowed each "am" to play with or against six different "pros" and against three different "ams". Each round had a time limit of 50 minutes, plus one turn for each ball after time was called, play to continue for one more hoop in the case of a tie. This kept the event on schedule, while allowing most games to finish with the winners scoring the full seven points.

"Amateur" players Dick Boger of the Highlands Croquet Club and Gil Flowers of the Wildcat Cliffs Croquet Club finished the day undefeated, Boger winning the top prize on net points. Sherif Abdelwahab led the "pros" with five wins in six rounds, followed by Ben Rothman with four wins.

After handing out the prizes for the Pro-Am, Albert then explained the Crazy Croquet course while Abdelwahab demonstrated each "hole" with his usual flair for showmanship. For a $25 donation, contestants puzzled their way through nine challenges including the hill of sand, the speed bump, the cage, the water hazard, Alice in Wonderland, and the Bastille. Trillium member Marilyn Price claimed top honors by carding a remarkable 22 points. (One of the "pros" claimed to have scored 20, but this was never confirmed.)

While Sherif demonstrates each wicket shot of "Crazy Croquet," Michael Albert explains the course. "Crazy Croquet" has been developed and perfected over time by Pasadena's Eric Sawyer. It's an extraordinarily silly and therefore fascinating combination of Golf Croquet and miniature golf, with nine hoop "holes," the last of which is called "The Bastille" because it resembles the famous French prison tower. If Sherif fails to clear both pink flamingos in one stroke, the consequences could be dire. The course is designed with plenty of opportunities for triumph or tragedy with each stroke, so the spectator is inclined to say, "Shoot! I can do that!" Maybe so. But win or lose, the entry fee will go to a good cause.

Weihs's painting received two identical winning bids, and her offer to create a second one was gratefully received by both bidders as well as the event organizers.

One of the auction items, this Plein Air painting of the Pro Am, got two bids of $1,000, so the artist, Karen Weihs, agreed to donate a second one as well.

Raising money for Team USA was, of course, a major goal of the entire event. Funding at this level helps ensure selection of the strongest possible team to compete for world championships. But an equally important goal was to strengthen the relations between the USA's top Golf Croquet players and the USCA's largest concentration of Golf Croquet players and clubs.

But that's not all: These players are already planning a special tour for American players to travel to England next May to cheer on the team on a 10-day organized excursion that would include visits to the world championship venues and some other clubs and special sights. You can't put a price on that kind of support.

And just for the record: The winners are...

The major competition in the 2015 Western North Carolina Challenge was staged at the Lake Toxaway and Burlingame country clubs. They provided top-class lawns at no charge for the tournament and made their club facilities available to players and visitors alike. The country clubs in this region are fairly close together and regularly compete against each other in league play.

The Egyptian-Americans, with their powerful and dramatic shot-making, are especially good at holding the attention of an audience. The crowd is watching Sherif and his brother Ahab Dincer, in their critical final match.

Once again, the Egyptian-Americans dominated the "serious" tournament, challenged by a newly bearded Ben Rothman:

1. Ahab Dincer
2. Sherif Abdelwahab
3. Ben Rothman
4. Mohammad Kamal
5. Matt Griffith
6. Cheryl Bromley
7. Jimmy Huff
8. Russ Dilley
9. Gil Flowers
10. Jeff Soo
11. Mike Zuro
12. Michael Albert

The Pro-Am held the day before was a great kick-off to the tournament, with smiles and laughter all day long, in perfect weather. But once the Challenge began, the weather did turn cooler and moister. Instead of complaining, the competitors welcomed this unexpected challenge to prepare for less-than-ideal conditions at World Teams next May in London. The rain caused significant delays on Day Two, with standing water stopping play several times, but the fast-draining courts allowed the tournament to get back on schedule the next day. With the lawns double-cut each day, the pace stayed quick in spite of the rain.

Play started in two blocks of six, Ben Rothman and Mohammad Kamal each going undefeated. The top three from each block then met in a cross-block round, mirrored for the bottom three. While all 12 players would advance to the knockout round, the cross-block games would be used for seeding. Local player Gil Flowers, seeded last and playing in his first top-class event, won three of his games to advance to the top cross-block. Rothman edged Kamal 7-6 to claim the top pick in the knockout.

The unusual "draw" inspired by Chris Clarke
will be repeated.

The "draw" for the knockout was done in an unusual way. Based on an idea put forward by New Zealand's Chris Clarke, players were allowed to choose their places in the bracket, starting with the #1 block finisher and moving on down the list. While this might not seem to be much of a motivation for earning the #1 pick, the remaining players showed such an aversion to meeting Rothman in the quarterfinals that they obliged him by forcing the last two picks into his quarter, an easier draw than he might have expected. The knockout turned out to be well-balanced and the "draw" itself was entertaining, so this approach is worth repeating.

It was no surprise to see Rothman and Kamal joined by the brothers Ahab Dincer and Sherif Abdelwahab in the semi-finals. After a drubbing in game 1, Abdelwahab regrouped to beat Rothman 1-7, 7-4, 7-6. Dincer (Sherif's brother) who had started the tournament slowly, caught fire in the semi-finals to beat Kamal 7-2, 7-4.

Dincer maintains a quiet, respectful distance while brother Sherif aims to shoot a wicket.

The final match was well-attended, despite the gloomy weather. Both players dialed back the power at times, mixing in gentle-to-moderate-paced clearances with their usual hard-hitting swings. Abdelwahab started game 1 with a 2-0 lead after gently running hoop 2 from about 10 yards. The players traded hoops through 8, Abdelwahab leading 5-3. After a long battle Dincer scored 9 from the boundary, then 10 with a jump shot. After another long battle at 11, Dincer took a 6-5 lead and closed out game 1 with a jump shot at 13, winning 7-6.

Game 2 likewise started with a 2-0 lead for Abdelwahab followed by hoop 3 for Dincer, but Dincer's shooting touch turned cold and Abdelwahab cruised to level the match with a 7-1 win.

Dincer takes close position at hoop 12. In the next shot, Sherif tried to clear yellow, but instead sent it through the hoop to give his brother the game, the match, and the tournament.

Dincer got the early lead in the deciding game, taking hoop 4 with a ten-foot jump shot for 3-1. Both players shot exceptionally well as Abdelwahab caught up to 3-all. The pressure-filled final stretch featured many excellent shots plus a few clunkers, Dincer getting to 6-3. Abdelwahab fought back to 5-6 but gave Dincer the winning point by knocking the opponent's ball through 12 while trying to clear it.

Accidents happen in all sports, and the most entertaining ones often happen at the end. Both players deserved to win, and their spirited competition delivered a top-class sports spectacle to the crowd who had raised more than enough funding to send the American team to Britain in the spring.

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