With the right strategy, anyone’s grandmother could beat Michael Jordan in this game. In Central Park, slightly to the north of Sheep Meadow, there sits a patch of leafy artifact from the 19th century: a 15,000-square-foot lawn.
The lawn is tucked behind a chain-link fence, where a group of 30 men and women were dressed entirely in white Polos or linen shirts, chino shorts, canvas sneakers and baseball caps. Members of the New York Croquet Club gathered to celebrate National Croquet Day on June 4. The ball-and-mallet game looks easy until it’s not.
“The game of croquet is a combination of chess and billiards on a much larger scale, so you have the competitive aspect in terms of the strategy, and you also have the execution that’s required,” Peter Timmins, a Financial Advisor and President of the NYCC said.
In the American ‘six-wicket’ version of croquet, two or four people play at a time. The idea is to hit a ball through a series of six cast-iron wickets (hoops that stick out of the lawn) with a mallet. The first player to clear all the wickets wins.
“Croquet is my competitive outlet ... I can’t dribble a ball. I know that my capacities are not in certain sports,” Timmins said. “The one that I can play is the one where you can walk around and swing your arms.”
“It’s a Bit Addictive”
Over the six-hour celebration, between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., there were clunks of wooden mallets on colorful balls and the players exchanged cheers and pleasantries.
“I thought it was a pretty simple backyard game, but...there’s a lot more to it. You can always get better,” Dave Goddard, the NYCC committee chair said. “It’s a bit addictive like that – the more you learn, the more you want to learn. It requires a lot of accuracy, patience and touch.”
The game is layered like an onion. Even the slightest clack of a mallet is an exercise of some unique strategy, and a millimeter difference in a player’s foot placement could influence the results.
In a game where tactics prevail over athleticism and stretching is the most demanding activity involved, a six-foot-three player and a kindergartener are placed on a leveled playing field. What looked like an exclusive garden party from in front of the fence was, in fact, an open invitation to everyone.
“People of all ages can pick this up, and that’s a wonderful thing because there aren’t so many activities that are senior-friendly and as welcoming,” Susan Battley, a leadership educator and NYCC member from Long Island, said.
Croquet was first played by the French in the 1850s. The NYCC was founded in 1967 by Jack Osborn, and the game has been played in Central Park since 1972.
“You’ll notice that we do wear white, and that’s just a tradition of formal croquet ... and almost all croquet clubs choose to carry on that tradition,” Goddard said.
Free Monday Clinics
Today, there are 77 members in the NYCC. The club continues to recruit new members through free Monday clinics – weekly sessions that introduce the public to the game’s basics.
“I peered through the fence three years ago ... and I was told to get on the website,” Goddard said. “The young people love the challenge ... elderly folk love the fact that we can play it well into our aging out period... it doesn’t require a lot of vim and vigor.”
The club’s annual fees range from $100 to $250 depending on membership status, which includes student members, social members, junior members and full-time members.
The NYCC website is a resource for prospective players. But many members started as curious spectators with their faces glued up against the fence.
“To play is to celebrate our love of the game,” Goddard said. “We have drinks and refreshments and welcome anybody... to see us today and hopefully they can sign up for our Monday evening clinics.”
The game has become a serious and mind-challenging sport among the young, old and even the disabled. A soccer player with a retiring knee or a badminton player with a pained wrist doesn’t need to give up their competitive endeavors for good.
“Sometimes I become the whipping post. Sometimes I’m humbled before I even begin,” Timmins said.