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In May 2014, General Manager Jason Macaulay was asked by Croquet World Online Magazine to comment on the success of HFCC’s croquet program.   He said then, and will say now, that “we never dreamed it would be this popular.  …It is the smartest thing we’ve ever done.” 

HFCC is Introduced to Croquet

For HFCC, it began early in the 2011 season.   Croquet programs at Lake Toxaway and Highlands Country Club were thriving and others were starting at nearby clubs.   HFCC’s Long Range Planning Committee made a recommendation to the Board in June of that year to explore creating a croquet association here.  The Board authorized Jason and Golf Course Superintendent Fred Gehrisch to study all aspects of building such a program.  By July, the numbers were in and enthusiasm for starting a program at HFCC was growing rapidly.

That enthusiasm was encouraged by other area clubs through invitations to our members to play on their lawns.  Barbara and Jim Estes accompanied members of Wildcat Country Club for croquet lessons and play at the Lake Toxaway lawns in late July, with instruction by croquet masters George and Jane Enochs.  Days later, Sam and Barbara Gassaway were invited to play croquet with friends at the Highlands Country Club.  Afterwards, Sam (then Vice-President of the HFCC Board) told Jason, “we need to do something about this.”   And there was no looking back.     

On August 7, 2011, Sam emailed the United States Croquet Association (USCA) asking for information about starting a croquet club and building a croquet lawn at HFCC.  The USCA began providing a wealth of information and resources to HFCC, including an introduction to Andy Short, USCA’s North Carolina District representative.  USCA’s National President, Eugene Young, also sent an email welcoming HFCC to the world of croquet and extending the invitation to a grand exhibition of the game of golf croquet taking place at Lake Toxaway’s croquet club in September of 2011.  This welcome was from a man whose love for the game and passion for its development was born out of the experiences he had at other clubs in western North Carolina and, more importantly, the people behind those programs, i.e., the Enochs (Etowah and Lake Toxaway), John Rivers (Chattooga) and Bill McClanahan (Highlands).  

HFCC responded to Gene’s email with an invitation to visit the club.  Gene was living near Cashiers at the time and had never been to HFCC.  He met with Board President Ned New, Sam, Jason, Jim Estes and Fred.  Among other things, Gene strongly recommended that the club build two full size lawns.  But at that early stage, HFCC thought that one full size lawn, along with a half-size practice lawn would be sufficient. 

A potential site for a lawn was identified and the concept tentatively blessed by Ned and the Board of Directors, with the caveat that interested members had to raise the funds to build the lawn and facilities.  The $200,000 estimated cost was thought to be too much for the Club itself to take on in a year of slow economic growth and fears of recession.
After more HFCC members were invited to play at Highlands Country Club, the enthusiasm for croquet continued to build and fundraising began in earnest.  To gauge members’ receptiveness, Ned, Sam and a small band of others reached out to several members offering “founding member” status in the HFCC croquet club.  Founding members made a contribution of $5000 and asked several other members to becoming founding members too.  Sam explained, “It wasn’t a pledge we were asking for.  We told them to send a check.”  The results were fast and impressive.  Ned reports that one of the founding member couples responded with a “yes” within a few seconds of receiving the email.  This initial ask quickly raised $150,000 of the roughly $200,000 needed.  With this level of response, HFCC’s board approved moving forward with the croquet initiative at the August 2011 board meeting.  Fundraising efforts continued.  Ultimately, $280,000 was raised before ground was broken. 

HFCC benefitted from Gene’s recommendations and guidance in building its program from early on.   Gene even had his long-time doubles partner and mentor, Harold Allison, come from Etowah to professionally lay out the strings for the outline of the HFCC lawns.   

Aside from required blasting, construction of the lawns was managed by Fred Gehrisch.  The result was stunning.   Sam cut the ribbon at the grand opening ceremony of the lawns held in early June 2012, roughly ten months after his “we need to do something about this” statement.     More than 120 members of the newly created Highlands Falls Croquet Association attended the opening and received early instruction and exhibitions of play from Gene as well as USCA professional Jeff Soo and his wife Eileen.   Many of the founding members attending were playing with custom-made and engraved mallets built for them by HFCC member Bill Hightower.


HFCC Falls in Love with Golf Croquet

For the first two years of HFCC’s croquet program, Gene generously took on the task of teaching HFCC members how to play the game of golf croquet.  As President of the USCA, Gene recognized that the game of golf croquet (in contrast to the more complicated “American Rules” game) was the best way to encourage growth of croquet programs throughout the country and he used his tenure with the USCA to promote that belief with great success.  He recognized what all members of the HFCC Croquet association soon learned themselves – that golf croquet is very social, easy to learn and can be enjoyed within minutes of receiving early instruction.  Yet, it remains a challenging and competitive sport with ample opportunity to develop techniques and strategies.     

During this time of growth of HFCC’s program, the USCA continued its support of HFCC’s croquet by underwriting the travel costs for Jeff and Eileen Soo to come to HFCC for a few weeks each season to hold rules clinics, help teach new players and hone the skills of existing players. By 2018, Jeff and Eileen had become honorary members of HFCC.

Jason managed the croquet program for the first three seasons, until it was obvious the program was growing to such an extent that he was stretched too thin.  He approached Fitness Director Onifer Wilmoth about taking over the program, which Onifer agreed to do – earning him the additional title of HFCC Croquet Director.  In Jason’s words, Onifer took the program to the next level and continues to do so. 

While the membership of the Croquet Committee changes somewhat from year to year, it has enjoyed the steady leadership of Ken Finn as chairman since 2017.   Ken and Barbara joined HFCC in 2012 and soon thereafter played croquet for the first time.  They soon grew to love the game and to become talented players, eager to teach new players and to help the program grow.   Ken joined the croquet committee in 2013 and was asked to set up HFCC’s first ever club championship.  Gene put Ken in touch with Jeff Soo, who Ken describes as “the consummate tournament director.”   Ken recalls that the flighting for the tournament began with the question, “do you own a mallet?”   That tournament proved to be the next step in the maturity of HFCC’s croquet program.

By the end of the 2016 season, it was clear that Gene Young’s early recommendation about the  need for two lawns had been correct.  The popularity and strength of the program begged for two full size lawns, which could be made into three 75% (still-regulation) size lawns for more play.   And so began Phase II. 

HFCC’s Croquet Program Flourishes

 In early 2017, the Croquet Committee, with Board liaison Billy Ray, made a second proposal to the HFCC board, chaired by Julia Hussey.  The proposal detailed the success of the croquet program and the overwhelming need for expansion to meet members’ needs.  It included  detailed plans for both the lawns and pavilion.  A second round of fund-raising began almost immediately, spear-headed by Ed Eleazer, who put the funding approach together and raised the necessary money in less than four weeks.  Construction began at the end of the 2017 season.  Once again, HFCC members stepped in to volunteer their time and expertise in so many ways.  Among others, Jim Potts provided consultation and oversight on the construction.   Susan Potts and Barbara Finn planned the furnishings for the pavilion and lawn surrounds, using professional connections to save HFCC significant cost.   By spring of 2018, HFCC was enjoying two full size lawns, landscaping, a service path to the club house and a pavilion that had doubled in size, with a new bar area aptly christened “The Cro-Bar”.  HFCC now has the largest and finest facility on the plateau and is the only club on the plateau with lawn configuration big enough to host the Mountain Challenge event.

One of the most memorable events of HFCC’s Croquet program was “The Highlands Shootout” held on August 17, 2017.  HFCC partnered with the USCA to host this exhibition match between top players, Sherif Abdelwahab and Jeff Soo.  It was an event designed to generate excitement and enthusiasm throughout the croquet community on the plateau.  And did it ever!  An estimated crowd of 400 spectators filled bleachers and chairs surrounding the lawn to watch these experts play.  USCA President Sara Low was here and Damon Bidencope was on hand to provide the play-by-play commentary.  It was a grand treat for all who experienced it.   HFCC hopes to host many other like tournaments in years to come.

With Gene Young, Jeff Soo and Michael Zuro as members, HFCC can boast that it is the home club of three USCA champions, as well as a member of the USCA Hall of Fame (Gene, 2018).  But you will not hear about their respective achievements directly from them.  For HFCC Croquet, they are excellent players, who are always willing to provide a word of advice about technique, strategy, or the rules of the game.  They each delight in the shared love of croquet and their enthusiasm is contagious.  Each will tell you, though, that it is the quality of HFCC’s lawns that is the top reason for their decision to make HFCC home.  HFCC is justifiably proud of that.  

HFCC can also boast that it has one of the largest croquet associations in the country in terms of membership.  During the season, the lawns for weekly Men’s and Women’s Days are always full, as are the Croquet and Crumpets events held multiple afternoons each week.  Much of that success is due to the seemingly tireless work of Onifer.   On days when there are players waiting in the wings, Onifer makes sure that everyone has an opportunity to play.  He provides instruction to new players and provisional guests and is extremely well versed in the official rules of the game and can serve as referee in difficult plays.  He is the primary force behind HFCC’s inter-club play with nine other Highlands/Cashiers croquet clubs now in existence.  At the end of each season, those clubs compete in the exciting Mountain Challenge.  HFCC is a strong competitor in each of these events, thanks, in large part, to Onifer’s efforts, the Croquet Committee’s assistance and the skill of our member players. 

The creation and growth of HFCC’s Croquet Association is built on the incredible generosity of HFCC’s members, in funding the start-up and expansion costs and in donating their time and talents as the program grew.  Besides those already named, HFCC Croquet is grateful for the contributions of members Ernie Franklin, Ron Elliott, Mark and Marianne Mahaffey, members of the Croquet Committees past and present, and countless others.  And if you ask Jason, he would be quick to credit Bill McClanahan of Highlands Country Club as well.  Jason describes him as a selfless, “prince of a man” who wanted to see the game of croquet grow in as many area clubs as possible.   And it has.
This summary of Highlands Falls' Croquet History was written by Croquet Comittee Members Margaret Tooke & Linda Fuchs. Margaret & Linda deserve many thanks from the entire HFCC Croquet Community for recognizing the need and doing the research for this great HFCC story.