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With Mallets and Forethought : The ‘Cerebral’ Sport of Croquet Lures Top-Ranked Players to Thousand Oaks

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They joked and laughed together Tuesday, but today will mean serious business for the 20 amateur croquet players competing in a five-day national championship tournament at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks.

Despite a lack of prize money, the athletes are fiercely competitive, said Rhys Thomas, director of croquet at Sherwood. The game is so intellectually demanding that some players call it “lawn chess,” he said.

“The popular image of croquet is a flowery, 19th-Century, ‘my-aren’t-we-dainty-out-on-the-lawn’ kind of sport,” Thomas said. “The modern reality is a group of highly skilled, talented professionals playing a cutthroat game.”

The reigning national champion in international rules play, Tremaine Arkley of Independence, Ore., said he doesn’t need to practice any more. He said he knows how to find “the zone” of total concentration needed to make precise hits.

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“When I get into the court, I get rid of all the interior language and dialogue that goes on in my brain,” Arkley said. “It’s a mental game at this stage.”

After several rounds of play, which are open to the public, the winner who emerges Sunday will qualify for the U.S. national team and will represent the United States in international competition, Thomas said. The field of 17 men and three women includes 10 of the 20 top-ranked players in the country, he said.

Tournament croquet resembles the popular back-yard sport in which players use mallets to sock a ball through a grassy course of arched hoops stuck in the ground.

However, the world’s best players try to use each other’s playing balls to move around the court. By hitting a competitor’s ball with his ball, a player gets two additional hits in which to advance himself. Until that player runs out of hits, his competitor does not get a turn.

Unlike back-yard players, “We don’t want to knock (opponents’ balls) away,” said Doug Grimsley of Fairfax, Va., the ninth-ranked player in the United States, who was practicing Tuesday for the tournament. “We want to place them where we can use them.”

By anticipating several shots ahead and placing both balls perfectly, Thomas said, top players often can sweep through the course without letting an opponent even step up for a turn.

The strategy is in knowing where to place the balls to keep a turn going, and skill is needed to get them there, Grimsley said. Great players have five shooting techniques in their arsenal, Grimsley added.

“It’s like putting in golf, because every shot is an important shot,” Grimsley said. “But it’s much more cerebral than golf.”

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Five months ago, Barry Gindlesperger gave up golf to pursue croquet, which may seem at odds with his tough-guy background as a recently retired 25-year Los Angeles police officer, he said.

“Boy, am I taking a ribbing at the station,” Gindlesperger said.

But he loves the sport for its challenges, he said.

“If you miss one shot, that could be it,” Gindlesperger said.

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Croquet is not entirely a sport of the idle rich, the players said.

The current champion from the seniors’ tournament, 71-year-old C.B. Smith of Santa Monica, is a retired steelworker from the Midwest.

“I just like competing and meeting nice gentlemen--and rich ladies,” Smith said, bursting into laughter.

The beauty of the sport is that it does not require physical strength, allowing men and women of all ages to compete on a level playing field, said Arkley, the current national champion.

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He took up the sport only nine years ago and was named rookie of the year, said Arkley, who is 53. “How about that, at my age?”

A growing number of young people are taking up the sport, evidenced by the growth in the number of clubs where it is played and an expanding membership in the U.S. Croquet Assn., Thomas said.

About 5,000 players compete in various tournaments throughout the world, he said.

“Croquet, at this level, has never been more popular,” he said.

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Tournament play on Sherwood’s carpet-like croquet courts begins today, Thursday and Friday at 8 a.m., Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and Sunday at 7:30 a.m.


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