Croquet is not what it seems

Bill Miller bends his knees slightly, lines up his mallet with the red ball against the blue one, looks straight ahead and then down at the balls. An eerie silence descends on the scene. No one speaks. Thwock! The balls connect and roll a few feet in opposite directions.

It’s a Saturday morning in Bruce Park in Greenwich under a sky of enameled blue, the air tinctured with the fragrance of newly mown grass. Behind a white picket fence, Bill Duncan is explaining the distinctions between the rules of American croquet and that of Association croquet with its strict international regulations to a few members of the Greenwich Croquet Club.

“For starters, the game starts 36 inches in from the baulk line, not the nine inches of American,” Duncan says. He is dressed in requisite tennis whites, except this is not about tennis, this is about competitive croquet, and unlike grandpa’s game in his proverbial backyard, the professional sport is more like a giant chess board requiring as much strategic thinking and cunning as the board game. There is an easy familiarity among the small group: Ed and Hilary Michaels, Duncan and Miller, and Lee Kennedy, Matthew Rimi and Preston Stuart.

Kennedy, a retired architect who hails from Sleepy Hollow, NY, has an easy manner and there’s a rakish glint in his eye as he watches Miller edge closer to a wicket. When Duncan finishes his explanation of details and variations (there’s no deadness board, for example, for balls out of play, an important deviation), a game begins in earnest.

Croquet is in the big league of all lawn sports with its own lexicon: roquet (to hit another’s ball), croquet, continuation, dead on, rushing, striker, making a break. Professionally played, it seems simple enough. First you need a court. The Bruce Park locale is the only one in use today in Greenwich, but back in the ’80s, there were two other courts, both on private properties. Fred Supper had one at his estate on Round Island in the Belle Haven hamlet of Greenwich, and Bill Campbell had one on his backcountry acreage. The two men were masters at the game and were inducted into the US Croquet Association Hall of Fame in West Palm Beach, Fla.

A croquet court measures 84-by 105-feet. Grass is so severely clipped, it looks as if it were cut with a razor blade. Balls glide across it like a hockey puck on ice. The requisite equipment includes 36-inch, 3-pound wooden mallets, 1-pound balls, six wickets 12-inches high whose jaws are only a dime’s width wider than the ball, four balls (blue, black, red and yellow played by either singles or doubles). Each ball gets a point for going through each wicket (first in a clockwise manner and then in a counterclockwise manner) and one last point for striking the stake. The game is won by the pair who scores 26 points first or has scored the most wickets at the end of a time limit, about 75 minutes. And it’s one heck of a Machiavellian sport.

Rimi, president of the Greenwich Croquet Club, was first captivated by the game while summering on Cape Cod about seven years ago. He freely admits he is addicted, traveling up from his home in Manhattan to play the game almost every Saturday in Greenwich. In those few years, he’s managed to repeatedly psych out his opponents, for this is a game of talent and cunning.

Once considered a genteel pastime to be enjoyed by the American glitterati of the day, croquet was codified by Jack Osborn in 1977. Croquet claims several thousand aficionados across the country, several hundred clubs and yearly tournaments. The New York Croquet Club celebrates its jubilee this year. Rimi estimates the Greenwich contingent is close to 50 members, with games on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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