Bonus Strokes

Top-level croquet is civilized, yes? No! Here’s a primer on the quirky game and an interview with world-class player Doug Grimsley.

Bob Scott

Bonus Strokes – Feature

Forget Alice in Wonderland or ladies in white dresses. Today’s croquet is serious business, complete with a national tournament circuit, international rivalries and top-ranked players pursuing glory with all the enthusiasm of any professional athlete. Croquet players describe their sport as—can this be?—“aggressive” and “cutthroat.”

Tournament-level croquet should be familiar to those who’ve played the backyard version of the game, says Jack Chase, president of the Virginia-West Virginia district of the United States Croquet Association (USCA). The equipment is the same: a mallet, heavy plastic balls, wickets and, finally, the pin, which is hit on the final stroke.

From there, it gets complicated. There are three versions of the game—six-wicket, nine-wicket and “golf” croquet. Six-wicket is the most sophisticated and is the version played by most leagues and clubs and in most tournaments. Two players must pass their balls through six wickets in a prescribed order. Each player has two turns to hit his two balls (black and blue or red and yellow); “running,” or putting a ball through a wicket, earns another shot during the same turn. Good players can monopolize the field for up to a half-hour, Chase explains. The six-wicket game is played with either International or American rules. International play is considered more of a “striker’s” game, while the U.S. version favors the strategist. Errors include hitting a ball out of bounds and hitting a ball twice without running a wicket. The granddaddy of goofs: “stuffing a wicket,” when you glance your ball off the wicket, usually producing a loud clang.

Golf croquet is the fastest-growing version of the game, according to the USCA. In golf croquet, each player has a single shot per turn. Nine universities in the U.S. have golf croquet programs, and a number of Virginia croquet clubs have built golf croquet programs to reach out to their local middle and high schools.

Nine-wicket is the backyard version most people know. USCA has no official rules for nine-wicket play, and it can be a bit of a free-for-all.

Croquet dates back to the mid-1800s in Europe, and it only gained popularity in the U.S. in the 1920s, according to the USCA. Unlike the refined game most think of today, croquet at the turn of the century was opposed by public officials and clergy for the gambling, drinking and generally bad behavior that accompanied its play. Through most of the 20th century, nine-wicket was the game of choice. USCA’s official history of the game says it wasn’t until the 1970s that U.S. players discovered the six-wicket version and organized amateur clubs and tournaments.

For more insight into this quirky sport, we turned to Doug Grimsley of Fairfax, once one of the top five six-wicket players in the U.S. In December 2009, Grimsley was the top scorer in the U.S.’s first-ever win over longtime rival England in the Solomon Cup, which Chase says is croquet’s version of golf’s Ryder Cup. Grimsley also earned a spot on the prestigious MacRobertson-Shield team and was one of six U.S. players to play in a marathon three-week tournament in England against top teams from the U.K., New Zealand and Australia. Grimsley’s father is a longtime top-level player in Virginia, and Grimsley met Stephanie Paduano, now his wife, at New York City’s Osborn Cup tournament in 2003.

I have to ask: What is “deadness”?

Deadness happens if you hit a ball but don’t run it through a wicket. The ball becomes “dead,” or off-limits, until you put another ball through a wicket. In American-rules play, “deadness” follows you through multiple turns. That can make multiple balls off-limits and requires careful strategy to continue. In International rules, deadness is forgiven at the end of each turn, allowing players to target more balls and play a faster game.

Are there big rivalries in croquet?

There’s a major rivalry between the U.K. and the U.S. The U.K. has always been the power in croquet, and we’re kind of the new kids on the block. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the U.S. was invited to participate in international matches.

What makes a top croquet player?

Good croquet players have pretty competitive, aggressive personalities. If we weren’t playing croquet, we’d be gambling on our golf games. You have to be a strategic thinker, too, figuring out which ball to hit, where, in what order, and how to leave your opponent with no good shots. Chess, golf and pool players often make good croquet players. Precision is important, too. A long shot can be 80 feet or more, through a wicket that’s only 1/32nd of an inch larger than the ball.

The rewards of being a top player are just getting to play—there’s no money in croquet. I was one of the top earners in the sport in 2009, and I made $5,500. The purses just pay for your travel expenses. For me, it’s about being able to play and beat the best people in the game. What else can you do at my age [60], in sport, and be the best?

Why isn’t croquet more popular?

It used to be. It was a medal sport at the first Olympic games in 1920. The U.S. actually holds the only Olympic gold medal ever given in croquet. For a sport to be nationally popular, though, it has to fit a television format. Croquet, unfortunately, is virtually untelevisable. You’ve got a single player making small strokes around a flat court for up to a half-hour. It’s just hard to watch. In 1994, I played in our national championship, which ESPN televised. I was onscreen for 20 minutes, but when I watched it later, even I didn’t know what was going on!

The other problem is a lack of courts. The closest court for me is an hour and a half from my home. In big golf states like North Carolina and Florida, croquet is far more popular, with courts often built alongside major golf courses.

WHERE TO PLAY >>>>> College of William & Mary Williamsburg: George Barnes, 757-253-2227 • Confederate Hills Croquet Club Highland Springs: Urchie Ellis, 804-272-5923 • Country Club of Virginia Richmond: Thomas Wallace, 804-287-1459 • Fieldcrest Croquet Club Williamsburg: George Barnes, 757-253-2227 Middle Peninsula Croquet Club Gloucester: Jack Chase, 804-815-9658 • Riverview Croquet Club Suffolk:  757-923-0095

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