`Like chess on a court'

Howard At Play

June 18, 2000|By Suzanne Whitmore | Suzanne Whitmore,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

While NHL and NBA playoffs have been getting major exposure in recent weeks, a different - not as physical and much older - group of players has been training in western Howard County for a less-heralded title competition.

Those players, many retired and most at least 55, will put it on the line Friday, seeking the sixth Maryland state championship of competitive croquet. The tournament at Larriland Farms, a "pick your own" fruits and vegetables spread in Lisbon, will end June 25.

This is not the same croquet that families play in their back yard on lazy summer afternoons.

Competitive croquet is "like chess on a court," says Catonsville resident Terry Cunningham, 67, who has played for nearly 20 years. "Moves may be either offensive or defensive. You play both against your opponents and the course, which requires a lot of challenging strategy."

Twenty-six members of Howard County's Patuxent Croquet Club, the Easton Croquet Club from the Eastern Shore and the Chestnut Croquet Club of Swanton, near Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland, will compete. The Deep Creek club is host.

The competitive version

Instead of the nine wire wickets and two posts backyard players use, tournament players face six wickets and one stake on a level court that resembles a golf green. Players alternate strokes with heavier mallets and sturdier wickets than backyard players know, subject to the sophisticated, sometimes bewildering, American Rules of Six-Wicket Croquet.

A game is won when a "rover ball," one that has maneuvered all wickets in each course direction, is hit off the center stake. Points and bonus strokes are gained after completing each wicket, as well as for "roqueting" (hitting) an opponent's ball, thus earning the right to "croquet" (hit again) that ball off the line of play - though not into the next county, as some backyard players do - with your ball.

In tournaments, players compete individually or in two-person teams. They get 45 seconds to shoot each ball on a court that measures 84 feet by 105 feet. Paid referees oversee tournament games.

Voices are rarely raised, and everyone is expected to maintain proper decorum.

Tournament players carry 1.5- to 20-stroke handicaps that enable them to play equally against more skilled competitors. In a typical tournament, a player can expect to compete in seven or eight games.

`A genteel game'

Players pursue the game ardently, being serious on the court, although off-court, most maintain a touch of irreverent perspective on their pursuit.

"It's a very genteel game," says Dick Wyrough, 73, a member of the Patuxent club, hastily adding: "But the politeness is superficial."

Laurence Moore, 74, Larriland Farms' owner and the reigning Maryland croquet champ, formed the Patuxent club six or seven years ago (no one remembers exactly, although Moore has been playing lots longer than that). The club has 17 members, many of whom practice three afternoons a week.

Members dress in customary "whites" for both practice and tournament play. They also pay a yearly fee of $300 for maintaining the two courts in Moore's front yard.

He is such a croquet devotee that, he says, his first court at Larriland was completed before the house was habitable.

`Only the good side of town'

Not to be overlooked is competitive croquet's social aspect. Cocktail parties, dinner parties and awards banquets generally accompany each tournament.

Tournaments are conducted on many weekends throughout the United States and Europe, usually at exclusive clubs or resorts such as the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., the Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, Pa., and the U.S. Croquet Association in Palm Beach, Fla.

As Moore puts it: "You only see the good side of a town when you play croquet."

Cunningham got serious about the game at age 55. He coaches the team at St. John's College, which won its fourth straight national collegiate championship in April over competitors that included one from a block or so away in Annapolis, the Naval Academy. It's not a big competition, though, with only six college croquet clubs in existence.

"You have to remember, this is a very esoteric sport," Cunningham says.

"Only one in 100,000 people even knows that 'professional' croquet exists."

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