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Sizzlin Feature

Tricky Wickets

The Hard-hitting World of Six-Wicket Croquet

Sizzlin Summer 2002

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By Brennen Jensen | Posted 5/22/2002

Croquet . . . no biggie, right? You know the game--a staple of the Sunday-afternoon family barbecue. You root around the basement for the battered equipment (look next to the broken badminton rackets). Randomly shove the wire-hoop wickets amid the backyard crab grass. Divvy up the little hammers-on-sticks things, the--whaddya call 'em again?--mallets. And spend a leisurely, beer-in-hand hour sending blue, red, black, and yellow balls careening under the Hydrangea bushes until the burgers are done.

Well, forget that. Put it out of your mind. What you were playing was nine-wicket croquet. A jolly pastime to be sure, but child's play compared to the exacting, strategy-rich, veddy British game of six-wicket croquet. There might be three fewer wickets, but there's a boatload more rules and stratagems.

Six-wicket is the version championed by the U.S. Croquet Association. And six-wicket is the game pursued by the Patuxent Croquet Club, one of a handful of local croquet clubs dedicated to the sport (and perhaps the only one welcoming new members and not part of some swanky country club).

The Patuxent club plays at Larriland Farms, a beautiful, bucolic spread owned by Larry and Polly Moore near Lisbon in western Howard County. (It's a working farm with a pick-your-own fruit and veggie business; check out www.pickyourown.com.) Their driveway meanders through a peach orchard and ends at a handsome ranch house fronted by a pair of well-groomed croquet courts. On my sunny Sunday afternoon visit, a club-sponsored invitational tournament is just winding down. Fourteen mallet-wielders began play on Friday, May 3, and now the semifinals are underway.

Don't look for crab grass here. Six-wicket is played on a 105-foot-by-84-foot rectangle, the flatter the better. Polly Moore says a laser-assisted bulldozer was used to grade the courts, and the putting-green-style grass is cut two or three times a week. (The need for such an expansive, elaborate playing area is but one reason six-wicket is less well-known than its casual nine-wicket cousin.)

Croquet has been played on the farm since the 1930s, back when Moore's father in-law, idled by the Depression, sought a cheap form of amusement. He bought some Montgomery Ward croquet equipment, fashioned wickets out of bug traps, and started whacking away. The game got into the family blood. "When I got married, my lovely wedding present was a lawn mower to mow the croquet court," Moore says.

Moore and most club members are spectators in this weekend tourney, which has drawn some big-name players from up and down the East Coast. Among them is Canadian Leo McBride, one of the North America's top five mallet-swingers. Organized croquet follows a handicapping system, with players ranked from 0 (expert) to 20 (novice). McBride is so adept he's off the chart--his handicap his -0.5. On the circuit they call him the Killer Canuck, the Ontario Assassin, the Great White North Nemesis.

Actually, no, he isn't. I made all those nicknames up. There's no trash talk, no swagger, not a hint of braggadocio in the genteel world of six-wicket. I'm told again and again how this is a gentleman's (and gentlewoman's) game. (There is a referee during tournaments, but players largely police themselves.) McBride might be one of six-wicket's superstars, but he remains an unassuming middle-aged guy in a floppy hat and white clothes.

Of course, everyone is supposed to wear white when playing croquet--it's one of the sport's British touches. (Apparently the French invented the game, but the Brits perfected it--making it quirky and complicated in their inimitable way.) It should come as little surprise that the croquet tournament is a very quiet affair--final-hole-at-Augusta quiet. The handful of spectators seated under a green-and-white tent speak in hushed tones, if at all. You can hear a woodpecker tapping away in an adjacent woods, and somewhere a cow is mooing.

These rustic sounds are occasional interrupted by the crack of a mallet smacking a wooden ball, sometimes followed by the crack of one ball hitting another. The mallets--much larger than those used in backyard croquet--are usually wielded in a between-the-legs pendulum motion. Some players wield anodized aluminum models that can cost several hundred dollars.

Ah, and six-wicket's rules? Sorry, I'm afraid I can't help much. All I can tell you is that in two-player games (there's team croquet as well), each white-clad participant plays a pair of balls (either blue and black, or red and yellow). The object of the game, at its most elementary level, is to hit your pair of balls through all six of the five-inch-wide wickets twice, and then hit the wooden stake in the middle of the court for a total of 26 points (one for each wicket, and one for hitting the stake). But there's so much more to it than that.

Moore offers an analogy by way of explanation: "If nine-wicket croquet is like checkers, then six-wicket is like chess." And we all know there's more to chess than just knowing that bishops move diagonally and rooks go straight. One major six-wicket strategy is using your opponent's balls to your advantage. See, if you hit another ball with one of your balls, you get two extra strokes. You can capture your opponent's balls and move them all around the court to help you make wickets. But once you hit a certain ball with another ball, the struck ball becomes "dead," meaning you can't hit it again until you make a wicket and the ball becomes "alive." A small board--called a deadness board--is kept on the sidelines during play to keep track of which balls are dead to which players.

John Oehrle, a 56-year-old engineer who's come down for the tourney from his home near Philadelphia, tries to help me get a handle on the game. He sits beside me on a cement bench giving a play-by-play account of the action.

Oehrle: "OK, he's running a three-ball break right now. The pioneer ball is at six, because that's the wicket after five, so he'll use blue to go through six."

Me: "Uh-huh."

Oehrle: "Now he's doing a roll shot when you get down on the ball and 'scrub' it"

Me: "Yeah, sure"

Of course, visiting the courts during a tourney is not the best time to learn about the game, or about the Patuxent Croquet Club, which was founded in 1993 and has 25 members. The atmosphere is much more casual, I'm told, on regular Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons when the courts are open for club play and members of all levels get together to smack away and socialize.

"We could use a Tiger Woods of croquet to get some interest going in the sport," laments Oehrle. But even without a marquee name or ESPN coverage, there is evidence that the sport is growing. Earlier this year, the Croquet Foundation of America opened a swanky 10-acre complex in West Palm Beach, Fla. Some new blood comes into the game through the smattering of colleges with teams. (The University of Virginia just formed a croquet squad; William and Mary has a club, as do some of the Ivies.)

Mark Goodwin, a 36-year-old copywriter from Frederick County, is one of the club's younger and newer members. He only stared playing a few years ago and has already earned a respectable 3.5 handicap (and he had a good run in this tournament, making it to the semifinals). Though the rules can be a bit daunting at first, he stresses the game's egalitarianism.

"It's very accessible to just about anyone," Goodwin says. "Age isn't much of factor and men and women compete equally. Kids can play--anyone can play."

For proof of that, one need only look to Annapolis. The state capitol is a hotbed of croquet action, thanks largely to the 20-year-old, six-wicket rivalry between St. John's College and the Naval Academy. Though their campuses sit side-by-side, croquet is one of the few activities where the middies mix with the Great Bookies. (And so far, the bookworms have bested the budding officers: St. John's leads the annual competition 16 games to four.)

But wait, there's more. Back in 1988, a plucky band of seniors at Annapolis' Ginger Cove Life-Care Retirement Community took up the game. Fielding teams largely comprised of octogenarians, over the years team Ginger Cover has come to beat both St. John's and Navy on the grassy rectangle. ESPN the Magazine dubbed the middies-vs.-oldsters croquet battles "The World's Wackiest Rivalry," and St. John's now plays the Ginger team each year for the Generation Gap Trophy.

To wit, in six-wicket croquet a silver-haired great grandmother can open a can of whup-ass on strapping Navy midshipmen and whippersnapper college punks.

Now that's egalitarian.

The Patuxent Croquet Club can be reached at (410) 381-6234. You can peruse the six-wicket rule book at www.croquetamerica.com. Oh, and the "Ontario Assassin" lost the PCC tournament's final game to Kenster Rosenberry--the "Pennsylvania Powerhouse." First prize was $1,200--not too shabby.

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