A bastion of gentility in the world of sports

Authenticity: The British version of croquet is alive and well in the United States. Howard County will play host to the state competition of what some call a mix of billiards, golf and chess.

June 22, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

It's a select few who come to western Howard County week after week, mallets in hand, to practice a sport so formal that players must wear white, so genteel that referees generally take a competitor at his or her word.

They play croquet - not the backyard version, but the competitive game, in which strategy is crucial and good sportsmanship is paramount.

Members of the Patuxent Croquet Club practice their game on two courts in G. Laurence Moore's front yard, their whites a striking contrast to the small rectangular fields with the manicured look of putting greens. Players are on their best behavior: You'll find no trash talk here.

"It's a gentleman's game," said Polly Moore, who owns the courts with her husband and has played for about a decade. "It's not beer and pretzels. It's tea and crumpets."

Tomorrow, people from across Maryland who know the secret of real croquet will gather at the Moores' place in Florence, near Lisbon, for the three-day state championships - complete with a formal dinner, cocktail party and awards luncheon.

The game comes by its culture honestly: Its roots as a sport can be traced to mid-19th-century Britain. A less-sophisticated version traveled to America soon after - the nine-wicket game most people know and love - but competitive croquet, with its six wickets, 75-minute time limit and complex rules, was rarely played in the States until 30 years ago.

Now there are about 3,000 players in 300 clubs across the nation, according to the 23-year-old U.S. Croquet Association, based in Wellington, Fla.

The game is part billiards, part golf and part chess, its proponents say. Players don't need strength but skill: the mind to decipher the best move, and the ability to figure the angles needed for that perfect shot and then execute it.

"It takes a year and a half to learn it," said Bo Menton, a semiretired dentist from Ellicott City who started playing a half-decade ago "to humor some people" and got hooked.

The Moores, farmers who've lived in Florence for 34 years, used to play the backyard game. Then they met some competitive croqueters.

Now they run a club for 20-some enthusiasts, one of six croquet groups in the state. Members travel to tournaments up and down the East Coast.

Most clubs in the United States are private, like the Moores', although a growing number are run by municipalities.

Typically, competitions are held in country clubs, resorts or homes, and most are invitation only.

Saying you'd like to play is enough to get you on the list at some tournaments. No one was turned away from the Maryland championships, organizers said.

But other croquet competitions are more exclusive, with long waiting lists - like one held annually in Cashiers, N.C. Organizers send out engraved invitations.

To get in, "you play quite well and you know the right people," said Polly Moore. (Yes, she's been invited, but she wasn't able to attend.) Behave poorly - or fail to wear white, as required - and you likely won't be asked back.

She realizes this makes croquet sound upper-crusty.

"It's a little snobby," she freely admitted with a grin. "But the people are quite nice."

Patuxent club players are a good-natured bunch and don't take themselves terribly seriously. The Moores' black Labrador, Sally, regularly trots into the middle of games, and no one complains.

To get into the club, players had to be sponsored by a member, but that's only to ensure that everyone will get along, not an attempt to be elitist, the Moores said.

Last week, men and women gathered on the court directly in front of the couple's brick rancher - an intimate spot tucked behind apple and peach orchards - for one of their thrice-weekly practices.

They range in skill from beginners to experts. Laurence Moore's handicap is a 2 - on a scale of -1 to 20, with the lowest being the best.

Dressed in white slacks and a button-down ivory sweater with the United States Croquet Association seal, Moore teamed with Woodstock resident Ed Walter for a game against Menton that crisscrossed the field.

At 84 feet by 105 feet, the court is small enough that a player can get from one side to the other in a single turn, and the Patuxent folks often do. Their strategy isn't to take the quickest route from wicket to wicket, but to stay ahead of the competition, using the opponent's ball to advance. Knock another ball with yours, and you get two bonus turns.

Moore - who won that match with Walter - likes the modest size of croquet courts.

"There's nowhere you can go to hide from a good player," he said.

Menton, handicapped at a 4, isn't bad. Croquet appeals to him - keeps him coming back - because it's a sport that demands thought.

"Every game, you find something that hasn't happened before," he said, taking a break before the next one.

Lee Hanna, a Columbia resident who retired from the National Security Agency two years ago and now works as a consultant part-time, is one of the Patuxent club's newest members. Invited by friends, she found the setting "gorgeous." And she enjoys the game's emphasis on ladylike and gentlemanly behavior.

While referees can be found at competitions, they don't watch shots unless specifically asked to - and if they aren't asked, they take the player's word on what happened.

U.S. Croquet Association rules encourage full confessions from any player who commits a "fault" - for instance, not hitting the ball properly.

"It's all based on word of honor, and manners and etiquette," Hanna said. "I like that sort of a code. ... You know what's expected, and everybody trusts everybody else."

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