Every Wednesday, Gene Young puts on his croquet-mallet-emblazoned polo and Lands’ End shorts, grabs his titanium and graphite mallet made by his late mentor who taught him the finer points of the game, hops into his golf cart and arrives at the croquet lawn, less than a mile from his home, in time for weekly wine ‘n wickets.
The Highland Falls Country Club, in Highlands, NC, where Mr. Young has spent $1.7 million renovating a second home, has become “a hotbed of croquet,” says the retired dentist who purchased the home for $1 million in 2017. The 68-year-old now plays several times a week and was recently inducted into the US Croquet Association Hall of Fame. “We now have more croquet players than golfers,” at the Country Club, says Mr. Young, who played croquet competitively in the US for more than a decade before he went amateur again a few years ago. He is still considered one of the top players in the area. He’s so enthusiastic about the sport that he recently arranged for the Egyptian national croquet team to play at Highland Falls.
Croquet, which originated with French peasants in the 13th century, has long been played professionally on a national and international level, but it’s becoming increasingly popular with retirees. Aging players are choosing the sport because it is easier on the joints than golf or tennis, but still offers healthy competition. You can find them playing in pairs with mallets in one hand, drinks nearby, wearing a strict all-white dress code—as a nod to tradition.
The ancient sport has gained a new following in luxury retirement communities across the southeast United States because it’s easy on the knees and a cinch to learn. Plus, you can drink wine while you do it.
Homeowners Peggy and Harry Peden on the croquet lawn at The Oaks Club in Osprey, Fla.
Edward Linsmier for The Wall Street Journal
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The sport’s popularity among retirees isn’t just about finding a joint-friendly activity. They say they enjoy the social aspect of the sport and the fact that it’s easy to learn. The result is that properties with croquet courts, especially in Florida and North Carolina, are “very hot,” right now, says Sara Low, president of the US Croquet Association, a trade group with roughly 200 member clubs throughout the country.
Many country club communities originally added croquet lawns for additional revenue and a way to keep members engaged. But the sport’s popularity has surprised club managers, who now organize social events that revolve around the lawns. Many are hosting croquet club tournaments that attract players from other communities and clubs, Ms. Low adds. Croquet lawns are also an affordable amenity for country clubs that already maintain golf greens.
Residential listings mentioning private croquet lawns are still rare across the country, but they’re on the rise. In January, sale listings for 22 homes over $800,000 mentioned croquet, up from eight in 2015, according to Realtor.com (News Corp, owner of The Wall Street Journal, also operates Realtor.com under license from the National Association of Realtors.)
The Cashiers-Highlands plateau in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, has about a dozen country club communities that offer croquet to their residents, right alongside tennis and golf, says Jochen Lucke, president of Silver Creek Real Estate Group in Cashiers, NC. In 2018, the average price for homes over $1 million in the Cashiers-Highlands plateau was nearly $1.7 million, with 120 sales, compared with $1.52 million in 2015 with 68 sales, according to Mr. luck.
“We call it summer camp for adults on the mountain,” says Mr. luck. He swings a mallet himself several times a week and estimates the area has about 1,600 croquet players.
At Highland Falls Country Club, where Mr. Young lives, 250 members eager to play croquet donated $500,000 for a second court and a covered pavilion that was completed last year (an initial court opened in 2012 but got too busy), says general manager Jason Macaulay. Highland Falls’s covered pavilion replaced a mobile bar setup, making it easier for players to order drinks while eating crumpets (made on the premises) and clotted cream.
“People who might have left the club at age 78 are suddenly hanging on to 88 because they can play croquet,” says Mr. Macaulay, who adds that croquet fees are just $150 per family a year. “When golf is the only option, they are more likely to resign and sell their home.”
Another reason croquet, a cross between billiards and chess, is popular with the retired set is that it requires mental and strategic skill, something the mature set have in spades. Country clubs usually offer six-wicket croquet for more experienced players, and “golf croquet,” which moves faster and is simpler to play, for those new to the sport. Some clubs even hire croquet pros to help members brush up on their skills. Pro shops sell mallets and a “steady inventory of white goods,” adds Mr. Macaulay. After the games, groups of croquet players repair to the club dining room for their lunch or dinner, and more drinks, which has helped increase food and beverage revenue, he adds.
Spotting players in their whites on the croquet lawn can be a draw for new buyers looking to build out their social calendar. Peggy and Harry Peden, who purchased a $2.63 million home in December after Mr. Peden semiretired, are looking forward to playing against other couples at The Oaks Club in Osprey, Fla.
“Croquet is more my speed—it’s a slow, social kind of thing,” says Ms. Peden, 73. “It’s always fun and nobody takes it seriously.”
For the Greenwich, Conn. transplants, the opportunity to stay engaged within the community while enjoying the indoor-outdoor feel of their home is key. Their four-bedroom 6,800-square-foot home includes a saltwater swimming pool and an oversize lanai, perfect for lounging when they are not playing sports nearby.
“It’s a wonderful place to watch the sunset,” says Ms. Peden, who also plays golf.
At The Plantation in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where homes average $1.1 million, the club built a croquet court in 2016 on an unused piece of land for $60,000 after residents showed interest. About a quarter of the 566 homeowners now play, estimates general manager Rob Schlingmann. New inter-club croquet tournaments showcase the real estate offerings to those arriving from six nearby clubs, he says. Attending tournaments while driving past the homes in the gated community “is a nice soft sell,” he says.
Lynn and John Buchanan, who purchased a four-bedroom home with views of the “water and greens” for $1.9 million at The Plantation this year, say croquet was part of the draw. ms. Buchanan, 56, whose husband retired from the police force in Miami and now runs a home-based business, was looking for a turnkey home in a community with a “sense of camaraderie.” As a croquet lover who has played informally for 30 years, she plans to join a team in the coming months. One reason for the hold-up? They need more to acquire enough white outfits to abide by The Plantation’s strict court dress code.
“We know what the attire is, we just haven’t had a chance to get it yet,” she adds.
To escape summers in Atlanta, Rick Detlefs, a 68-year-old dermatologist who retired less than two years ago, now spends more time in a vacation home he built for $2.4 million at the Chattooga Club in Cashiers, NC. When he purchased the lot in 2007 and saw a growing croquet community at the community’s country club, it took lessons and joined. Now, mr. Detlefs takes a refresher course each spring to prepare for the season, which runs May through October. He plays at least once a week, often going for croquet-and-rosé on hot Saturday afternoons. “It takes some concentration, but it’s completely compatible with having a glass of wine,” he adds.
The lawn game is played on a rectangular grass court where singles or doubles teams use mallets to hit balls through hoops (called wickets in the US). Once balls go through all of the wickets in the correct sequence and back again, the players aim to hit a peg on the court to “peg out” their balls before their opponents do. There are four colors of balls, with blue and black balls playing against red and yellow balls. Each type of croquet has slightly different rules. Games start with a coin toss.
Six wicket croquet
Uses four balls and two to four players. Players hit their ball through six wickets in one direction, again in the reverse direction, then hit the center stake. Each ball has a similarly colored clip which the player attaches to the wicket she needs to go through next. The game is also called American Croquet and became popular in the 1960s. The side who completes the course first wins.
Unlike the other versions of croquet, each side competes to be the first to get through each wicket, then everyone moves on to the next wicket once one team scores. It’s a more social game because players are closer together and there are fewer rules, but it can be as competitive as other versions of the game. The game is played until one side wins seven points, one per wicket.
Association rules croquet:
Each player gets two balls (one each in doubles play). To win, players must go through six wickets, then back through again, and into the peg. Unlike the US version, there is no strict order in which balls need to be hit but singles players can only hit one ball during each turn. Points are earned for each wicket and peg hit. First side to get 26 point wins.
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