You’ve played croquet; we all have. At family picnics, Uncle Henry brought out the croquet set. Inside its tall box were colorful balls, matching mallets and wire hoops you bent trying to stick into the ground in your backyard. You’d hit your yellow ball and watch it bump around rolling willy-nilly wherever it wanted through the crabgrass, finally stopping until Uncle Henry’s red ball hit yours. Then he placed his foot on his ball to whack yours across the street into the neighbor’s azaleas. You vowed never to play again — at least with Uncle Henry.
“Forget about your grandmother’s game,” says Peter Stevens, a board member of the West River Wickets, an organization that promotes competitive croquet. “The game you learned as a child, backyard croquet, is not this game.”
A hybrid of golf and croquet, players alternate shots as in golf, striving to be the first through a wicket to win the hole. Getting through the six very narrow wickets is only half the battle.
“In its nuances, the game more closely resembles a cross between billiards, chess and war,” says Lee Joude, a 61-year-old and relative newcomer only having been playing for three years. “Jack Osborn, the founder of the United States Croquet Association, called it, A polite form of war.”
Golf croquet is played in tournaments around the world. Right here in Chesapeake Country, you can learn the game from certified instructors — for free.
The West River Wickets play on three croquet lawn courts in Southern Anne Arundel County. The 28-by-35-yard courts are manicured surfaces confined by short brick borders. One uses Bermuda grass, one is artificial, and the third uses the bent-grass of golf putting greens. The surfaces are smooth and navigable, like a tabletop or pool table. If you hit the ball straight, it goes straight.
Hal Denton, who hosts the artificial-lawn court at his historic Larkin’s Hundred home in Harwood, is a convert to the game.
It took getting onto the lawn as a player, he says, “to experience it as truly a sport where everyone could contend on an equal level.”
Then he was hooked. He is now president of the Croquet Foundation of America.
Age is no obstacle in golf croquet. At 75, Denton was one of six Americans competing in last fall’s world championships in Egypt against the finest players around the world — mostly the sport-dominant Egyptians, but also players from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Portugal and Latvia. As expected, an Egyptian won. After early success, Denton was defeated in the quarterfinals.
At the other end of the spectrum is 27-year-old Stephen Morgan, who began with the West River Wickets as a teenager. Morgan is now considered one of the best players in the world and just won the 2019 singles and doubles national titles.
Here and around the world there are over-50 tournaments, women’s tournaments, under-21 tournaments and combined open tournaments with many offering substantial cash prizes and trophies.
What does it take to be a good player, let alone compete at tournament level?
“Good hand-eye coordination,” says Joude. “And to not only be able to plan ahead but to adjust to a constantly changing game field. I love golf croquet because every match is different. The strategies you make and the shots you take are never the same. It’s the most physical mind game I’ve ever played.”
The West River Wickets are true enthusiasts, eager for converts. The United States has a meager 3,500 registered players in only 300 clubs. Most players are up in their years.
“It’s time the sport had fresh talent. We want anyone and everyone to join us,” Denton says. “We will teach you what we have learned so that the game will continue to the next generations.”
West River Wickets (www.westriverwickets.com) offers free introductory croquet sessions, including basic instruction on using a mallet, striking the ball and making wickets. Games of golf croquet follow. Saturdays from 10am on (weather permitting), at 246 Mill Swamp Rd., Edgewater: Jay Graham, 443 850-6520; [email protected]