Luke DeCock

International croquet a different kind of hoops

Croquet at Pinehurst

U.S. captain Ben Rothman plays a series of shots at the Solomon Trophy, a United States-vs.-Great Britain croquet competition, at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club on Friday, May 8, 2015. Video by Luke DeCock/ldecock@newsobserver.com
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U.S. captain Ben Rothman plays a series of shots at the Solomon Trophy, a United States-vs.-Great Britain croquet competition, at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club on Friday, May 8, 2015. Video by Luke DeCock/ldecock@newsobserver.com

If you want to represent the United States in international croquet competition, you’re going to need to learn a few things.

You’re going to need to learn how to swing the mallet between the legs, pendulum-style. You’re going to need to wear white. You’re going to need to learn the lingo: rush and break and peel and split and lift and wired and baulk and penultimate and rover and roquet.

After all that, you’ll probably think you’re ready to step out onto the courts – greenswards, if you will – at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, pull on a U.S. logo shirt and croquet away, because the game played at an elite level, at first glance, doesn’t look all that different from the game played in backyards.

It’s not like, say, badminton or ping pong, both of which are played by the truly skilled with a controlled violence that in no way resembles the familiar recreational activity. In croquet, mallets still whack balls through wickets, and even though the equipment and the rules are slightly more specific, the idea is the same, the pace even more languid as players consider all of their options.

That’s all an illusion, dispelled with close observation. The mallets are squared off, like toothpaste boxes attached to handles, some custom-made from kevlar and carbon fiber with precision milled ends, the wickets or hoops are carefully calibrated to only 1/16 inches wider than the ball and the play is just as subtly different.

Without watching for a period of time, noting how the competitors play their ball off the other balls to make their turns last for minutes on end, how they lift and move the balls around seemingly at random, it’s almost impossible to perceive the complicated rules, delicate technique and intricate strategy involved, let alone grasp it. For example: There are times where it can be more advantageous to advance your opponents’ ball through the wickets. Try that at a Memorial Day picnic.

Then again, the leap isn’t that far. These are amateurs pursuing an avocation, not a vocation. Jeff Soo of Durham, the second-ranked player in the United States, is a 50-year-old graphic designer who plays out of Stoneridge Croquet Club in Chapel Hill. He happened to wander by the courts at Bald Head Island 21 years ago. Seventeen national titles later, he won his opening doubles match Friday at the Solomon Trophy, an annual competition that pits the best American players against a team from Great Britain in 21 matches over four days.

Pinehurst is hosting this weekend, the silver cup sitting unguarded (no trivial matter, considering the original Solomon Trophy was stolen) on a metal patio table in the croquet pavilion, awaiting its distribution on Monday. Two years ago, Bald Head hosted. This year, three of the six U.S. team members are from the state, putting North Carolina somewhat at the epicenter of American croquet.

Prime Pinehurst real estate

Croquet was the original hit-ball-with-stick game at Pinehurst, introduced in 1898, three years after the resort opened. Its popularity faded as golf emerged, but it was revived in the 1980s as part of the members’ club by the late Mack Penwell, who taught croquet at Pinehurst.

The courts, which the croquet players share with lawn bowlers, occupy a piece of prime real estate outside the main clubhouse, steps from the bag drop and first tees of the No. 3 and No. 5 courses, a vision of gentility at the resort’s front door. During the U.S. Open in June, a merchandise tent and the first-aid center claimed the spot. Like the greens on the No. 2 course, the grass was replanted after the tournaments and carefully cultivated to international standards.

A plaque near the courts honors Penwell, whose influence runs strong in this United States team, extending to Soo, Pinehurst tournament director Danny Huneycutt and 16-year-old Matthew Essick, a North Davidson High School student whose father and grandfather learned from Penwell at Pinehurst. Essick also plays football and basketball at North Davidson, but he’s not ranked 78th in the world and seventh in the United States in those sports.

“There are a couple (classmates) who understand, but most just don’t really, I guess,” Essick said. “They can’t really grasp the concept.”

Essick wore a shirt from the 1999 Solomon Trophy, a gift from an older player, along with shimmery white Nike basketball shorts, neatly combining the traditional look with teenage tastes, but players his age are a rarity, almost a novelty. The game skews beyond middle-aged here and slightly less so in England where it’s more popular – although not that much more popular.

“Obviously it would be nice to be, I guess, more famous, in some sense,” said David Maugham, the No. 7 player in the world, who once shaved the Union Jack into his hair to protest being left off the British team for a different competition. “But after doing this at this sort of level for 25 years now, it’s always been like this. I’m used to it, I guess.”

Like the Ryder Cup, this has been a one-sided competition for much of its existence, with Great Britain going undefeated from 1985 until 2009, when the United States finally won. When the Americans defended their title on English soil in 2011, the Brits were shaken from their complacency. Now, they send better players and provide a stipend to encourage participation – England’s No. 1 player passed this year, but the next five in line are here.

It’s also very much an avocation as opposed to a vocation, with the British team consisting of a biologist, a painter, a bingo-hall manager, an IT professional and a pair of management consultants; the Americans are a graphic designer, a tennis pro, two retirees, a high-school student and one self-proclaimed croquet pro: captain Ben Rothman, 16th in the world, 32 years old, no permanent address.

Unlike the Ryder Cup, there’s no rancor between the two sides, with exponentially more beer consumed than piercing glances exchanged. The competition is no less intense, but the world of top-class croquet is so small, so collegial, there’s not much room for enmity. It’s also played at a relaxed pace, which tends to defuse tension.

Watching, waiting

Croquet at this level is, roughly speaking, equal parts sitting around and wild momentum swings.

After some initial tentative jockeying for position, not unlike a chess opening, one side eventually finds an opening for a “break,” at which point a single player can shuttle his way around the court for minutes, stringing together 20, 30, 40, 50 shots at once. His competitors (and partner, in doubles) settle back to read magazines or play solitaire on iPads, only to be roused into sudden action after a shot rattles off a wicket unexpectedly, ceding control to the opposition for potentially an even longer period of time.

“I felt good on my shot, Ben,” David Maloof, the third-ranked American, told his partner Rothman after an unfortunate miss.

“No regrets,” Rothman replied. “Good roll.”

He was correct to be confident: The duo would recover to post the only American victory of the morning.

Earpieces were available to listen to expert commentary, but there was no shortage of that available. Missed shots were accompanied by murmuring from the collection of about 50 spectators Friday, mostly members of the croquet clubs at Pinehurst and Bald Head along with a few croquet devotees staying for the weekend and a procession of curious golfers going to and from the clubhouse, some of whom were moved to stop and watch.

“This is a big crowd by croquet standards,” Soo observed, although Friday figured to be the peak in that regard given the stormy weekend weather. The croquet will be played regardless, barring lightning or standing water on the courts.

Pinehurst is less than a year removed from hosting two massive international competitions. This is on a different scale. There’s a scoreboard set up, and signage, and the American and British flags flying next to each other, underscoring the international scope of the event. But it’s still just a gathering of enthusiasts, playing a game that looks familiar but really isn’t.

“I feel like it’s a big deal, but it’s kind of close to home at the same time,” Essick said. “It’s right around here for me. It’s hard to grasp how large it actually is.”

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

The Solomon Trophy

The Solomon Trophy will be contested at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club through Monday, with matches beginning each day at 9 a.m. on the lawn courts outside the resort clubhouse. Great Britain led 4-2 at the end of Friday’s play, with the first team to 11 claiming the trophy. Results are posted at croquetscores.com.

Association Rules

In addition to the skill and strategy involved, the rules of international competitive croquet are quite different from the backyard game as well. Played under “association rules,” the goal is to use a mallet to hit two balls through a series of six wickets and “peg out” at a stake in the middle of the court. There is one wicket, or hoop, at each corner of the court and two in the middle. Each player has to get both of his balls through all six wickets clockwise and counter-clockwise, then peg out before his opponent. In the Solomon Trophy, a total of 21 best-of-three-games matches are played.

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