Croquet

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By Sandi Davis

On a recent Friday afternoon on two lawns that looked more like velvet than grass, men and women dressed in white played in the third annual Scissortail Invitational six-wicket croquet tournament on the two exquisite lawns at the Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club.

The tournament, sanctioned by the U.S. Croquet Association, is played by strict rules on a precisely sized, precisely laid out courses. Players are handicapped, like in golf, and games are played one-on-one and doubles.

This game has very little in common with the croquet played in backyards across America every summer. That game generally involves nine wickets and is played on whatever grass is growing in the yard. Rules are relaxed and backyard croquet is usually played for fun with the inexpensive equipment available in most large variety stores.

Tournament manager Suzanne Spradling explained the ins and outs of this adults-only game of mallets, colored balls, wickets and a wooden post and how it got to Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club. The tournament director was Tulsan Matt Baird.

“We got croquet started here about seven years ago. Club members had seen this game at other places,” Spradling said in a break between her matches. “We first played it on the lawn by the swimming pool.”

Suzanne Spradling and her husband Scott play tennis and golf together and decided to give croquet a try with another interested couple.

“It took six years for the number of players to reach critical mass,” Spradling said.

The couple first attended an instructional school for beginning players, then one on strategy the next year at the U.S. Croquet Association’s headquarters in West Palm Beach, Fla.

They started playing in tournaments after that.

The national association keeps track of all players’ handicaps, when they earn the points to lower those handicaps, as well as all sanctioned tournaments nationwide.

New players begin with a 20 handicap. A handicap is lowered by the number of games a player wins or plays well.
Suzanne Spradling’s handicap is a seven. The players in her group have handicaps ranging from eight to four and a half. The players with the lowest handicap at the Scissortail Invitational is a nationally ranked player Dr. Britt Ruby from Tyler, Texas. His handicap is negative two and a half.

Their equipment is a far cry from the lightweight mallets, balls and easily bent wickets used in recreational croquet.

“The mallets you can borrow from the clubhouse cost about $200 each. The balls are around $100 each and comes in packs of four – blue, red, black and yellow,” Spradling said.

Players can get customized mallets, and most players at the tournament had them.

The game itself is not the only thing with strict rules. All players in a tournament must wear white, from hat to shoes and their playing lawns also must meet stringent standards.

The two croquet lawns at the Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club were created with a mix of high technology and luck.

“The lawns must have grass cut as short as possible and a sand base for good drainage,” Spradling said. “The golf course was changing the sand in their traps, so we took the sand they had been using and made that our base.”
The lawn is truly something special.

Oklahoma State University’s Turf Management program is using the lawns to test grasses that may one day be on putting greens worldwide.

Right now, there are three different types of grass being tested on the two croquet lawns. Two, Northbridge and Latitude 36, are already patented. The third is nameless and its makeup is secret. The grasses divide the two lawns into three areas, one for each type of grass.

“The lawn has the same sort of breaks a putting green has, so hitting a croquet ball requires as much concentration as a golf putt.”

Spradling describes playing croquet as a mix of chess, pool and putting, and game strategy can win or lose a match. Perhaps the combination of using physical as well as mental abilities are why many players are doctors, lawyers, accountants and in Oklahoma City’s club, a retired Air Force general.

Spradling has a doctorate in environmental science from Oklahoma State University. Before that, she taught middle school and high school. Before she retired, she served as Dean of the College of Education at St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee.

Croquet is still a growing sport, which means right now players know each other from tournaments coast to coast.
The Scissortail Invitational had players from Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina and Vermont.

Tournament play runs like this:
The wooden pole in the center of the lawn determines the order of play – Blue, Red, Black and Yellow.

When playing doubles or pairs, blue and black play together and go first, followed by players with the red and yellow balls. Partners can help each other by using their balls to hit those from the other team.

The first day of the tournament is for doubles play, the next for singles games. The third day is block play and playoffs are the last day.

Occasionally, two players can use all four balls. One uses blue and black balls, the other player gets red and yellow.

The Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club Croquet Club has about 30 paid members right now. The lawn had just been installed for the inaugural tournament in 2014 and now is perfectly smooth and green.

When no tournaments are scheduled, members can hone their skills on the lawns.

Three members of the ladies club came by the table where Spradling was sitting, waiting until her next game.

Wiley Hughes and Kelly Feroli filled in informational gaps about six-wicket croquet as they sat and offered cookies hot from the Country Club’s oven. Cindy Lewis joined the group and they talked about the Women’s Croquet Club, an offshoot from the main club.

“We play twice a week,” Hughes said as she offered a chocolate chip cookie. “We play at 10 a.m. Tuesdays and 5 p.m. Thursdays.”

Feroli added the women generally ate lunch together after Tuesday’s games and on Thursday afternoons, the group had drinks and sometimes dinner.

“It’s nice to have the different times so members can come play after work on Thursdays,” Feroli explained.

From the time Spradling sat down to chat until this interview was finished, different players would drop by with a friendly greeting and a willingness to talk about the game that so many of us remember from childhood summer days, and compare it to its current place as a game for adults that uses a little athleticism and a lot of strategy for 60 to 75 minutes.

Spradling said that she likes to plan “Fun-a-ments” once a month. They may play croquet with traditional rules or a much faster version called “golf croquet.”

“It’s meant to be fun and a reason to get out and play,” she said “There’s lots of camaraderie.”

The winner will get anything from a “Redneck Wineglass” to a huge martini glass from a discount chain store.

They even steal a few contests from regular golf, like “closest to the wicket or pole” or from basketball like “HORSE” or more fittingly, “CROQUET.”

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