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The Croquet Way : It’s U.S. vs. Britain, With Mallets Aforethought

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The United States may be a big and mighty country with stupendous athletes to rival any in the world, but as some British sportsmen visiting here are wont to point out, America is no croquet juggernaut.

White-clad croquet aces from the United States and Great Britain are doing battle all week at Ventura County’s Sherwood Country Club in quest of the Solomon Trophy, regarded as the equivalent of the Ryder Cup the two nations compete for in golf.

And the underdog American team is hoping to do something it has never done before: beat the Brits at their own game.

“I’d like to beat them by the end of the century, at least,” said Michael Mehas, known as the “bad boy of American croquet” because of his flamboyant antics, which in this sport consist of such transgressions as, gasp, wearing black shoes on the croquet lawn. “If we don’t do it this week, that is.”

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There’s little chance of that, said Chris Clarke, a member of the British national team and the reigning world champion of the amateur sport. He calculates the odds of an American victory at 16 to 1, and that’s being modest, he added.

International tournament-style lawn croquet, much more cerebral and structured than the “backyard game” Americans are used to playing, began gaining popularity in this country only over the last two decades, according to the U.S. players. And it’s still more than a bit obscure, though California’s competitive croquet lawns are among the sleekest in the world.

“These British players have been competing for years,” said Wayne Rodoni of San Mateo, a two-time U.S. champion. “We weren’t playing in grade school. We were playing kickball.”

Under tournament rules, players who hit another ball with their ball get another turn--so the goal is to get your ball through all six wickets before your opponent even gets a shot. The Solomon Trophy competition, named after 1940s British player John Solomon, is a best-of-21 contest in singles and doubles.

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“The hallmark of the backyard game is putting your foot on the ball and smashing the opponents’ ball into the weeds,” said Rhys Thomas, the director of croquet at Sherwood Country Club. “In the six-wicket game, we’re much crueler, really. We don’t want the opponent to ever touch his ball.”

The game is traditionally marked by gentility and good manners--scoring is done on an honor system, with no referees or judges.

Mehas, 56, a former baseball player in the Philadelphia Phillies’ farm system, has been playing competitive croquet since 1988, when he spotted a pair of odd-looking wooden mallets in a window display at a Palm Springs shop and decided to give the game a shot.

He has since become one of the top players on the American circuit, though his checkered reputation kept him out of some tournaments and even led to a one-year suspension from the sport when he wore black shoes at a Palm Beach tournament.

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“It’s all hearsay,” the pony-tailed Mehas said of his bad-boy reputation. “The problem is that I try to bring some flair to the sport. I try to play this game like I was breaking up a double play at second base, and some people don’t like that.”

They might be more buttoned-down in their appearance, Thomas said, but the British are just as fiery. And they too have their eccentricities.

British national player Ian Burridge, for example, is famous in croquet circles for nervously hiking up his socks and fidgeting with his shorts when games get tight.

Defying the popular image of croquet as a game of the idle rich, the six-member American and British teams are almost exclusively made up of middle-class working men who practice their passion on weekends and holidays.

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The big difference between the nations is that most American players learned the game in their 30s and 40s, while the British were picking up their mallets in their early teens.

“It’s all about having that edge, really,” said Robert Fulford, Clarke’s doubles partner and a three-time world champion who is currently ranked No. 1 in the world. “If you practice enough, you have that edge.”


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