Many people have played croquet at least once, in their own backyard or in someone else’s. But they didn’t play it the way Jodie Fusz Rugart plays it.
Rugart, 62, of Frontenac, is a master of the hammer, an expert with the wickets. In a game that has a lot more strategy and geometry than you might expect, not to mention a golfer’s dexterous touch on the green, Rugart has mastered every aspect of it to become one of the top players in America. .
“It’s a great sport,” she says. “I love it. You can play at all ages. My father (Lou Fusz, known for the car dealership) played until he was 94, until he ended up in the hospital to die. There’s a lot of chess in it, a lot of thinking, like billiards or playing pool in croquet shots and lawns, like golf courses, will look different.”
Rugart finished 2019 and 2020 as the No. 2 female players in America after finishing No. 1 in 2018. In April, she finished third in the nation in the Grand Prix standings (in croquet, men and women are equal in court) and was the top woman, but she knew it would go down because Grand Prix points are based on tournaments played, and because she had moved from Florida to St. Louis for much of the year, trading in a croquet hotbed for once a week. slightly more off the beaten track, the tournaments are harder to find.
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When it comes to courts and players, Kansas City is much bigger in croquet than St. Louis (there are no public courts or croquet clubs here), but when it comes to being the cream of the crop, Rugart puts St. Louis on top , even if she has to travel longer distances to get to events.
Rugart didn’t take the sport seriously until 2007 when she met her husband, Conrad Rugart, who is also a championship-level player. But Jodie has outdone her husband; in the handicap system using croquet, which starts at 20 and goes down, Jodie is a -1.5, while Conrad is -0.5. “I’m a little better,” she said. “That’s okay.”
‘I see things’
What sets her apart from him, Jodie said, is a better sense of strategy, what she calls “the dance,” as players maneuver their balls around the field and always have to think several shots ahead.
“The first time I saw a game played the way it should be played, I saw the dance,” she said. “You have to see that a little bit. That’s why I’m a better player than my husband. I see things. Don’t ask me how or why. I have a more mathematical mind, I can see things like that. It’s athletics, too: you need to have good eye-ball coordination, you need to understand angles, and like any sport, you need to practice. You can’t just say, OK, I’m here.”
Still, it took her a while to get the hang of the game completely. “I remember a year after I started playing, I called one of my sisters and said, ‘When will this sport click? I’m an athlete, I can pick this up, but I’m not getting this damn game.’” she said “Finally it started to click for me. There’s a learning curve; it’s harder than it looks.”
Croquet comes to the end of a long athletic career for Rugart. A multisport athlete at Ladue High, she played futsal until she was 40 and underwent spinal fusion surgery. She has recently given up tennis but still plays golf, which may seem related to croquet, except the putting is done from the side while croquet shots are done with the hammer – her model, with a graphite head and shaft, costs approx. $500 – swung between the legs.
And what shots she can make, as she demonstrated to this scribe, who had his ball block the wicket. She swung sharply down on her ball and shot it into the air, over his ball but still through the wicket, to get ahead. (She was leading 7-1 when we suspended our golf croquet game.)
No walk in the park
And while croquet comes across as a bit genteel – many places require players to wear all white, including hats and shoes – that doesn’t mean it’s easy. On a typical day of croquet, Rugart can run seven or eight miles, with some games lasting 2½ to 3 hours.
While backyard croquet is usually nine wicket croquet, Rugart usually plays six wicket or American croquet. (There is also association croquet and golf croquet.) In singles, one player must maneuver two balls through the court, but it is rarely in anything approaching a straight line. While the obvious game often seems to be getting the ball to the next wicket, the strategy game often involves hitting the ball in a completely different direction to set up something else. And where many people in the backyard often enjoy shooting another player’s ball into the distance, at the highest level it is beneficial to keep the other player’s ball or balls close by to use as targets for roquets, a shot that hits another ball. Roquets lead to croquets, which are free shots you get for hitting another ball that allows you to pick up your ball and place it next to the ball you just hit, so you want to put exactly where that ball hits you, will end.
Rugart has installed a croquet court with an artificial grass field in her backyard – you’re trying to maintain a surface where the grass should be as short as a putting green and perfectly flat – so the game is never far away. She held a tournament there over the Independence Day weekend.
There isn’t much money to be made with croquet. Some tournaments have only recently started with first prizes going up to $500. And it’s not a big spectator sport, so Rugart goes through life with not many people, knowing that there aren’t many who do what she does as well as she does. is doing.
“I think people are stunned to hear it,” she said. “We have some friends in New Jersey who brag about me. “She’s a world famous croquet player.” It’s pretty cute.”