When Blake Fields of Rancho Mirage stepped onto the lawn of the USCA Croquet Nationals in North Carolina in late September, he drew many confused looks from the other participants warming up for the biggest sporting event in the United States.
Heads turned. Faces twisted. Phrases that, if spoken, would have said, “Who is this boy?”
That’s because most participants in the sport of golf croquet, a grass game commonly associated with the senior set, are between the ages of 50 and 60. Fields, on the other hand, is 11 years old.
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That’s right, the sixth-grader attending Sacred Heart in Palm Desert competed in the US Open croquet equivalent of golf and not in some youth division, in the top division, against an adult-only field.
Oh, and one more thing. He won.
That’s right, Fields and his partner, Sherif Abdelwahab, a 57-year-old and one of the best players in the US, won the doubles title, despite Blake being at least 30 years younger than any other competitor.
And you thought their faces were more confused? They were utterly perplexed to see Fields holding the trophy.
“Some adults were like, ‘Wow!’ and some adults said, ‘Okay, I’ve seen him before,'” Fields said. “But most of them were just amazed that I was able to control my nerves and play so well in a national tournament.”
His dad, Justin, confirmed that Blake definitely got some sideways looks as the competition progressed.
“People were definitely watching him closely,” Justin said. “Even the players who’ve seen him play, there’s always something small. And then the times he goes 3-0 or 4-1 in a match (matches go to 7), it suddenly changes from curiosity to ‘Uh Oh!'”
So let’s back up a bit. How did a kid from the desert get into croquet? How did he rise to such an elite level? And is this the same sport I played in the backyard with my family?
According to Blake, his story started when he was seven years old, so four years ago.
He had some relatives who lived at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, across from the croquet lawns, and he watched people play this funny-looking sport. Blake’s curiosity caught the eye of then-head croquet pro named Ben Rothman — Rothman currently happens to be the number 1 player in the US and now lives in Northern California — and he invited Blake to give it a try.
“I was seven at the time and he asked me to play, and then he saw that I was getting better, and he kept wanting me to play,” said Blake. “I played my first tournament when I was 8. When I was about 9, I started winning tournaments and then I thought: this is for me.”
Just after turning 11, Blake played in his first national tournament, winning the singles and doubles title in the middle flight. Now he only plays in the top divisions. Blake is currently the number 16 ranked player in the United States and number 303 in the world – the sport is more popular in other countries than in the US
So what exactly is golf croquet? Basically there are two types of competitive croquet: association croquet and golf croquet. Golf croquet is becoming more and more popular as games are faster and easier to learn and play. A point is won by the first player to get the ball through each hoop (people in the know don’t say wickets very often) as opposed to both players completing the full circuit of hoops to score.
Another difference is that in golf croquet the ball goes off the ground a lot. The player swings the hammer between his legs like a pendulum and slams the ball into the ground, causing it to jump or bounce.
The equipment is much the same as your traditional croquet, although players at Blake’s level will have custom hammers that are just the right height and weight. In his case, it needs to be adjusted quite often as he gets bigger and stronger. The hoops (wickets) are not arcs, as you might imagine, but more like the mathematical symbol for pi, where the two sides are parallel lines. Think Arc de Triomphe in Paris, not The Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
“Other differences between what we do and backyard croquet are that the lawns are flatter and not wavy or bumpy,” Blake said as he showed his skills on the manicured lawns of Mission Hills Country Club. “Also, the wickets are only (as wide as) a dime on each side of the ball, and there’s a much higher velocity because there’s not a lot of tall grass interfering with you.”
What if he tells his friends at school about his croquet performance?
“Their response is usually like, ‘I’ve played backyard croquet before. Is it just that way?’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s a lot harder,’ and then I show them videos on YouTube,” said Blake, whose second-best sport is water polo, by the way. “And then they’re like, ‘Wow, that is really hard.'”
When the average amateur, like this interviewer, thinks of croquet, the first thing that comes to mind is the part where you have to shoot your opponent’s ball into the neighbor’s petunias. Does that happen with high-level croquet?
“I mean, it can happen if you want to hit the ball really hard, but most of the time it’s not necessary,” he said. “But I do like hitting someone’s ball, especially if they’ve been doing it to me all day.”
‘Ha. No, I don’t think it would work out that well,’ he said.
The sport – and being so good at it – has opened a lot of doors for Blake, especially in the travel world. He has played in tournaments in North Carolina and Northern California so far, but next year he will represent the US in a tournament in London.
Justin said one of the best things about traveling for this sport is the sense of community and how accommodating everyone is.
“We thought maybe it would just be like that here because everyone at this club accepts him that way, but it’s like that everywhere,” Justin said. “The people involved love to travel and love the food and there’s a lot of etiquette about the sport. Like everyone has to wear white, and that’s the last thing on your mind when your 11-year-old wears all white clothes, but it’s fantastic. It’s a whole different world, not like going to a football game or anything like that.”
The travelling, the food, Blake enjoys it all — including a funny moment when he won an event in Sonoma and they had to change a portion of the prize from wine to sparkling cider to match his age. But in the end he really enjoys the game. Specifically, pack a punch (croquet pun intended) to all the kids out there.
“I like being out there when the competition is just for adults, and I just get to go out and show that kids are just as good as adults at things,” he said. “If you keep practicing, you’ll get better and you can compete against anyone. I like that.”
Shad Powers is a sports columnist for The Desert Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.