Winslow Homer’s painting of a game of croquet remains a definitive image, but this genteel depiction of the sport belies its demands.
Jackson businessman Mike McRee, a devotee of the game for over 20 years, says the game takes considerable strategic and shot-making skills. “We finished (the first) croquet lawn back in 1989, and in 1992 we finally learned how to play the game.”
“I had some farmland near Pocahontas, and my friend Grady Jolly had been to Meadowood Country Club in California, which has one of the finest croquet lawns in the country,” Mike says. “His cousin, who he met out there, was a friend of Robert Mondavi, and they all got together and played croquet. He came back quite enthused about it, and gave me a croquet set, one which I thought was pretty fancy at the time, not one of those backyard sets with the coat-hanger wire hoops.”
“So I went to the library and got a book on croquet and another one on how to build a golf green, since croquet lawns, which are called ‘greenswards’ are pretty much like a flat green. I leveled off this little peninsula that went into the lake, put in French drains and made it regulation size, 105 by 84 feet, which doubtless corresponds to some metric equivalent. I actually made this one a little bigger so you could move the game around to reduce wear.”
“We started having some people out to play on Sunday afternoons, and ended up having a pretty good group, fifteen to twenty couples who played fairly regularly, which in this country is a big club,” Mike says. “We started having tournaments, and the U.S. Croquet Association gave us a club of the year award. When I moved from Pocahontas to Flora the first thing I looked for was enough room for a croquet lawn. Now we have a group playing in Flora, mostly new folks that we introduced to the game. It’s a great social sport, a good way to bond and get a group to relax and get to know each other.”
“It’s also very complex; the pocket rule book is 54 pages long, and there are probably at least half-dozen shots you need to master. In golf, you’re playing against the course, but in croquet you have to be able to assess the skill level of your opponent. It’s like playing billiards on a green; typically the clearance between the ball, which is 3 5/8 inches around, and the wicket is about 1/32 inch. You always play four balls, even if you’re playing singles,” Mike says. “If I’m playing you, I might play the blue and black balls, and you would play the red and yellow ones. If you’re playing doubles, four players, you’d only play one ball each. So only four people can play, but you can have two games going on the court at the same time.”
“The guys who play at the upper levels of the game are amazing. I once played a fun game with a champion, and at one point I thought I had him in pretty good position; he’s 80 feet away from the wicket with 1/32 inch clearance. He said (with a British accent), ‘Mike, you’ve made a mistake, you’ve left me in front of my wicket!’ I said, ‘Yeah, Robert, but you’re 100 feet away from it.’”
“He takes three practice swings and BOOM shoots his ball right through,” Mike says. “I was definitely out of my league.”