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FERGUS GOULD: FINE-TUNING THE STANDARD IN UMPIRING

Dec 30, 2019 2:48 PM

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©David Lominska
Fergus Gould pictured right showcasing his characteristic positive attitude and smile. ©David Lominska

Coming from the land down under, Fergus Gould has amassed an impressive collection of passport stamps throughout his polo career, traveling and living in countries around the globe while working as a 4-goal professional player and umpire. Pursuing one opportunity after the next, the third-generation polo player ventured out of his hometown of Goondiwindi, Australia, immediately after high school, unaware that the decision to play in England would pave the path to a future in umpiring. Over the course of his 15-year professional career, Gould has procured numerous titles including the Australian Open, the Queensland Gold Cup and the Canadian Open. Although the natural transition to umpiring has afforded him a long-lasting career at a high level, it is not without the personal sacrifice of significant time spent away from home and learning to develop thick skin while remaining level-headed in the heat of many passionate games. Perfecting his eye as an experienced high-goal umpire over the past seven years, Gould has called some of the most prestigious tournaments in the world.

Receiving his first opportunity to play in the United States, Gould was introduced to his sponsor’s niece Lacey, the woman who would ultimately become his wife. The pair established roots in La Quinta, California, falling in love with the desert after years of relocating from continent to continent. A talented cricket player growing up, Gould has a variety of interests and talents ranging from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to the ukulele. Gravitating to polo at a young age like their father, Gould’s two sons, five-and-a-half year old Ivor and two-and-a-half year old Beau, play peewee polo at Eldorado Polo Club in Indio, California. Distinguishing himself as an outstanding umpire and assuming the title of Western Regional Umpire Director in June 2019, Gould is sharing his valuable knowledge to educate and simultaneously raise the bar for the level of professional umpiring in North America.

Gould family
Fergus Gould pictured with his wife Lacey and their sons Ivor and Beau.

What is your equestrian background and how did you become involved in polo?

“Polo is a family business. Both my grandfathers, father, mother, uncle and brother all played polo professionally. I grew up traveling with my dad while he was working as a pro. While playing in Australia my father was offered a job at Ellerston in 1997 and he spent 18 years working for Ellerston Polo Club. When I graduated from high school, I took what was only supposed to be a year off to play at Cowdray Park Polo Club in England, but it turned into nearly five years. I did attend Massey University of New Zealand for one year to study veterinary science, but that did not last long after my experience playing polo.

I began playing polo professionally when I was 17 and I always had a fascination with the United States. When the opportunity arose to come to the U.S. I jumped at it. My first job in the states was for Craig Steinke, my wife’s uncle. I was connected to him through a friend of mine who had played in the states before and I came to work in California.

I stopped playing professionally in 2015 to umpire full-time with the USPA. Before that I’d been umpiring around the world on my own, particularly in France as well as Malaysia. I umpired many of the FIP World Polo Championship qualifiers in the Dominican Republic and most recently the finals in Chile and Australia. I also umpired the Snow Polo World Cup in Tianjin, China.”

Where have you played during your professional career?

“I’ve played all over the world, but predominately in Australia and New Zealand. We had a family farm in New Zealand where we bred and made a lot of horses that we used when we played tournaments there. I also played in England, the Philippines, Mexico and managed the Thai Polo Club in Thailand for a year. My wife worked as the hospitality manager at the club.”

“I can only umpire one game at a time. But if I’m able to train and educate umpires and help them improve, then I have the ability to create many more successful umpires.”  – Fergus Gould

©David Lominska
©David Lominska

How were you introduced to umpiring?

“My first paid umpiring job was in England in 1998. Gillian Johnston’s Coca-Cola polo team was playing that season and I was umpiring high-goal practices in my spare time from my full-time job. As a way to pay for my membership at Cowdray Park Polo Club I would umpire any games that the polo manager needed and in return was able to play for free.

I started with the umpire program at Eldorado Polo Club in Indio, California, and started traveling to play in the desert in 2006. I was playing and umpiring, specifically a lot of the finals of the skins games. Susan Stovall, club manager of Eldorado Polo Club at the time, went to Polo Club Saint-Tropez (Gassin, France) to become club manager and brought me over to umpire the 2010 season. That was when I started spending more months out of the year umpiring professionally than I was playing. I was umpiring in the summer in Europe (six summers in France) and returning to play the winters here in the United States. My son Ivor was born in France while I was working there and Beau was born in the United States.”

Describe a day in the life of a high-goal umpire.

“Our schedule very much depends on the game times. If I have a morning game we arrive at the field one hour to 45 mins before it starts to have our pregame meeting. During this time we discuss anything that has come up since the previous game or things we need to focus on for the upcoming game.

Afternoon games are a little different because there is more time beforehand. Typically I try to make it to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training in the morning and watch any other polo games that are being played. Then after a light lunch I would head to the field for the pregame meeting.

After games we have another quick meeting to debrief. The plays from the games are accessible on our umpire app within 30 minutes after the game ends. Most of the umpires will review all their calls from the day and complete a self-evaluation that evening. There are also formal umpire meetings weekly and on our down time a lot of us play golf together since most of us are away from home and it builds camaraderie.”

“At the end of the day, we want to keep everybody safe, but we want them to play polo. We understand nobody is there to watch us umpire so we just try to facilitate a safe, open game.”  – Fergus Gould

What is the most difficult aspect of umpiring?

“From a technical perspective, managing personalities is one of the biggest difficulties that we face as umpires. When you get to the highest level, all the umpires are extremely knowledgeable about the rules and very good at calling the game. The thing that separates the really good umpires from the best is the way that they manage a game, the players, and maintain control while being involved as little as possible. At the end of the day, we want to keep everybody safe, but we want them to play polo. We understand nobody is there to watch us umpire so we just try to facilitate a safe, open game. Obviously having an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules and the procedures is something that requires time and effort and continuing education to make sure you are current with every aspect of it. We have to be able to access the rules on the spot because we don’t have the luxury of going back after the game to review and determine whether we got the call right or wrong.

Also, considering almost all of the umpires are former professional players I think the hardest part for them is making the mental switch from a player’s approach to an official’s approach.”

What is the most rewarding aspect of umpiring?

“For me it’s definitely the feeling when I have been involved in a really great polo game and I know that the team of officials has called a good game and given the players the opportunity to play safe, open polo. The 2017 Pacific Coast Open Final comes to mind when I umpired with Julian Appleby and Kimo Huddleston. The game went into double overtime and the teams played some fantastic polo after a very choppy and physical first half.”

What is your favorite hobby outside of polo?

“I have a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which is the intermediate adult ranking and have been practicing the art for 10 years. Jiu-Jitsu is similar to wrestling because when you hit the ground you have to get your opponent to submit. It focuses on grappling with an emphasis on ground fighting.

I started watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and jiu-jitsu was the martial art that everybody was winning with so I decided to try it out. Unbeknownst to me my brother had also begun training around the same time in Australia. Going back in our family history we found out that our great-grandfather was actually a British wrestling champion in 1911. He was supposed to compete in the Olympics in 1912, but he moved to New Zealand instead.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a very mentally stimulating and physically demanding sport. It’s one of those sports where you are always learning something new. It is interesting to me on so many different levels and it keeps you in great shape. They call it human chess - it’s all about setting traps and being a couple of steps ahead of your opponent. I competed in Houston, Texas, last year, but I don’t often have a lot of time to compete.”

Gould places second at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu competition.
Gould places second at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu competition.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

“I can play the ukulele and I play a lot of Jack Johnson and Willie Nelson songs. I started playing the ukulele when Lacey and I lived on a 36-foot sailboat for close to a year. I had a steel-string guitar at the time and the strings would rust if I kept the guitar on the boat. We bought a ukulele and I put velcro strips on it and attached it to the ceiling to keep it out of the way. My wife grew up sailing so we both have our American Sailing Association certifications and scuba diving certifications as well.

I’ve also done a bit of street magic performing for fun. I was really into close-up magic for a long time. Performing in front of people was one of the things that I did to improve at places like farmer’s markets. I even performed at a few kid’s birthday parties when my friends asked me, but magic requires a significant time commitment to upkeep your proficiency.”

What do your new responsibilities as Western Regional Umpire Director entail?

“In my new role, my focus is going to be on Empire and Eldorado Polo Clubs and training, educating and recruiting umpires from around the world. Throughout my travels, I’ve already met a lot of them. I will be focusing on standardizing the way that we train and educate the umpires in the USPA Umpires, LLC, so that they are better able to work with each other. I will be continuing the assessment and improvement of all the umpires and giving them more feedback on areas to improve on.”

What is your advice for someone who is interested in learning to umpire?

“To be successful as an umpire it is essential to have patience, a willingness to learn and the ability to not take things personally. To enhance your technical ability it is important to spend time developing a very strong understanding of the Rulebook. Building a solid foundation in the rules will give a newer umpire more confidence in dealing with on-field situations and is essential to progressing as an umpire.”

If you would like to contact Fergus Gould he can be reached at fgould@uspolo.org.

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