By Catherine Pritchard
That first time, there was no thought of a next time.
Three young Fayetteville men, home for the summer from college, wanted to hold a get-together with other friends before school and life pulled them apart again.
They decided to center the gathering around a horseshoe tournament – mainly because one of them had horseshoe stakes in his backyard. Ten friends ended up joining them for what was dubbed the Fair Oaks Invitational. The competition lasted two days and included laughs, beer and awards – a horseshoe nailed to a block of wood for the winner and a TV tray they’d found on the side of the road for last place.
The next summer, they thought: Why not do it again? And a tradition was born.
The first Fair Oaks Invitational was held in 1982.
This past October, the tournament was held for the 37th consecutive year. More than 50 men competed, including several who were at the very first FOI.
Among them: Adam Ancherico, Jamie Stewart and Andrew Stiles, who together came up with the idea for the tournament back in 1982. Ancherico, who lives in Fayetteville and is now the primary organizer of the annual event, has never missed an FOI. But nor has Stewart, who now lives in Houston. Stiles, who lives in Richmond, has missed just one – back in 1986.
It’s a priority for them and for many others. Over the years, nearly 300 men have competed in a Fair Oaks Invitational, with many returning year after year. Nine men have played in 30 or more of the tournaments. Another nine have played in 20 or more. Invitations are extended to prior players, new friends interested adult children of regulars – as long as they’re male. Begun as a guy thing, the FOI has remained a men-only competition but its long-term success has hinged on its welcoming of wives and children to the tournament and the traditional cocktail party held the night before.
The horseshoe competition is the FOI’s reason for being. But the fellowship of the event is what really keeps it going and what brings participants back year after year, whether or not they’ve ever been able to throw a horseshoe straight and true so it clangs around the stake.
“It’s a reunion and it’s fellowship,” said Ned Garber, who played in his first FOI in 1984 and has participated in 13 others since then, including this year’s. “It’s just a full day of fsun.”
After 37 years, the FOI is indeed still full of fun. Lawyers, businessmen, builders and other men chuckled frequently at this year’s FOI as they threw horseshoes and chatted about each other’s lives. Most were in their 50s – contemporaries of the three founders – but there were also older and younger men. The latter included adult sons who weren’t born when their dads started playing and the boyfriends of adult daughters.
It was the first FOI for Corey Renaud, who’s dating Ancherico’s daughter Rebecca, who graduated this year from UNC-Chapel Hill. Renaud, a Navy pilot, had never pitched a horseshoe but studied techniques on YouTube before competing. Losing early on, he was displeased with his performance but not Rebecca, who grew up coming to FOIs and loves seeing friends and their parents there.
“I would not miss it,” she said. “We have to have it.”
The FOI is full of shared memories, both good and sad.
It’s named for its first location – Fair Oaks, the historic home on Morganton Road where Stewart grew up. The tournament soon moved to other locations and has long since settled at a Wade-area farm owned by a long-time player. But Fair Oaks remained for many more years the site of the night-before cocktail party at which a tourney cake was always cut first by Stewart’s mother, Mary, who was dubbed Lady Fair Oaks. After her death in 2004, the FOI men took an oak seedling from Fair Oaks and planted it at the farm in Wade, setting a memorial stone beneath it in Mary Stewart’s honor. Now, participants take turn hosting the night-before cocktail parties.
An American flag has flown at every FOI since the 20th competition, which happened to be scheduled the Saturday after September 11, 2001.
“It was very emotional” the first time that flag went up, Adam Ancherico remembered.
Photo albums of past tournaments are always put out each year so people can goggle at who looked how when and the progression of so many lives over the years. Some show past players who stopped participating because they moved or were too busy or it didn’t appeal to them. A few have died. All are remembered.
Proceeds from the tournament go to a charity dear to its players. Cy’s World is named for Edgar Clyde “Cy” Garber IV, Ned and Caroline Garber’s son, who died in a car accident in 2010 at the age of 17. In his honor, his family created Cy’s World, which provides needy children with opportunities to hunt, fish and have other kinds of the outdoor experiences that Cy so loved.
So the FOI is about much more than just horseshoe pitching.
But there’s still plenty of horseshoes. Awards are still handed out for winners. And the last-place finisher gets a much prettier memento than was given in 1982 – but it’s still called the TV Tray award.
Many regulars continue to pitch despite achier bodies – and two hip replacements haven’t stopped Bobby Spicer, who has won the tournament 10 times over 35 years, including in 2017.
They pitch despite long losing streaks. Ancherico, for example, won the tournament for the first time in 2015. He had to beat Spicer “by a hair” to do it.
And they pitch because it’s tradition. Stiles, who placed fourth in 1982, has never come that close again. No matter. Stewart won the first Fair Oaks Invitational in his backyard in 1982. This year, at the farm near Wade where an oak tree that’s dedicated to his late mother grows, he pitched horseshoes again – and won for the second time in 37 years.
Next year, they’ll be back to do it all again.