Ron Sanderson of Rockett went to the National Horseshoe Pitching Association’s World Tourn-ament in July expecting to pitch a few shoes, make a few friends and have a good time. He never expected to win.

But win he did, bringing home the championship for Senior Men Class E and an unforgettable experience.

“It was the thrill of a lifetime,” he said.

Each contestant is divided into classes based on his or her ringer percentage - or success rate in landing his or her shoe around the stake. Competitors came from all over to the event in Ardmore, Okla., Sanderson said, and tension sometimes ran high on the courts.

“There was a lot of pressure, a lot of endurance,” he said. “People were there to win.”

Sanderson said he took his time and stayed focused — so focused, in fact, he often didn’t even hear his daughter, Stephanie Daugherty of Chicago, cheering wildly from the bleachers. He knew she was, though.

“She thinks her old man is hot stuff,” he said with a smile. “You could hear her hollering and clapping up in the stands.”

The class competition lasted three days, with Sanderson pitching 600 tosses against 15 opponents and coming out with the most points and a 31.5 ringer percentage, the highest in his class. The self-described slowest player in the field, he took extra time to scrape clay from the pits off his shoes and line up his shots.

“I’m just slow and concentrated. It was really total concentration,” he said.

Playing in tournaments is much different than playing alone, Sanderson said. The noise, bustle and tension of competition are a far cry from the quiet practice court in his backyard.

“Things start going differently,” he said, though he felt comfortable at the world tournament. “I was playing my game.”

Casey Sluys, publicity director with the NHPA, said the event’s arena held 50 courts, 48 for regular matches and two for play-offs, which were spaced to minimize distractions.

“It wasn’t too bad and they’re shielded with a partition,” he said. “It’s set up real nice as far as pitching is concerned.”

Sanderson entered the competition ranked fifth in his class, though initial rankings don’t always mean much.

“When you get in, it’s like a free-for-all,” he said. “It’s all a matter of who’s on, who’s hot, who’s focused.”

By the end of the second day of matches, he was in second place and close on the top spot’s heels, but it wasn’t until after beating the contender in first place early in the third day that Sanderson began thinking about the win.

“The last day, that’s when I thought, ‘I got a shot at this,’” he said. “They were close games, I had a couple breaks.”

A few matches later and Sanderson received his trophy, patch and $500 in prize money.

Sanderson said he plans to use the extra cash for entry fees into more tournaments.

“I play every weekend somewhere,” said Sanderson, who hopes to do well in the state tournament in October.

Sanderson, a member of the Arlington Iron Benders horseshoe club in Arlington, said he may return to the world tournament, which will be in Pennsylvania in 2008 and Springfield, Ill., in 2009. At this year’s event, he was one of nearly 1,000 competitors and one of five class champions from Texas.

Sluys, who’s been pitching competitively for 21 years, said horseshoe pitching has been around since Roman times. While the nobility tossed closed rings called quoites, peasants began using cheaper and more readily available discarded horseshoes and the sport spread to Europe and, eventually, America, where it is a popular pass-time at reunions, picnics, lodges and among the more than 600 clubs and 14,000 members of the NHPA.

“Virtually everybody in America has pitched horseshoes at some point in their lives,” he said, though the NHPA tournaments are far more structured than the pitching most are familiar with because of the regulation pitching shoes, courts and scorekeeping.

A retired engineer, Sanderson has pitched for three years, and said many of the players he goes up against have a lifetime of experience behind them. Still, he says, anyone can get involved.

“All you need is horse shoes and tennis shoes,” he said. “It’s a low-cost sport — it’s truly an amateur sport.”

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