ELLSWORTH, Maine — Despite a soft misty drizzle, the clack of the mallet hitting the balls was crisp Sunday afternoon at the Woodlawn Museum’s championship croquet match.
The muted talk of the spectators reflected how the game was going: “Oh, that was a good shot,” and “He planned that one perfectly.”
More than 20 people — men and women from all over Maine and New England — spent Thursday through Sunday at Woodlawn and in Brooksville competing in the second annual Maine-New Hampshire Six-Wicket Croquet Championship.
This is not the backyard game of your childhood, however. This is a competitive game with strategy and timing at its heart, and in a nod to civility, all players must wear white when in tournament play.
“It’s a thinking man’s game,” Randall McAndrews of Seal Harbor said. “There is a great deal of skill and thought in the positioning and who goes first.”
“It’s very competitive,” Perry Martin, chairman of the Woodlawn Croquet Committee, said. “It’s like chess, played on the lawn.”
The lawn itself is a tightly compacted court, similar to a golfing green, of velvet bent grass, carefully trimmed three times a week to ¼-inch high. No cleats are allowed, only soft-soled shoes.
The court is 84 feet by 105 feet and contains six squared wickets, compared to the nine wire wickets in the children’s game.
There is less than a sixteenth of an inch clearance for the ball to roll through the wicket.
“Each game is timed and each player plays the course twice,” Martin explained.
Competitive croquet is gaining in popularity, not just at Woodlawn, but at private courses all over Mount Desert Island. Across the country, there are competitive courses in Central Park, Beverly Hills and in the Everglades. Many colleges also have courts, including Bates College and Harvard University, according to Martin. In 1900, it was a competitive game at the Olympics.
Originally from Ireland, croquet became popular in England in the early 1800s but was soon eclipsed by tennis, and one croquet club, Wimbledon, converted some of its croquet lawns into tennis courts, according to the U.S. Croquet Association’s Web site.
The USCA, founded in 1977, has nearly 300 member clubs and 3,000 members, and it sanctions hundreds of tournaments each year. Much of the recent growth has been at golf clubs and resorts, and in municipal parks, the USCA says on its Web site.
“I’ve played all over the country,” Eileen Holberg of Southwest Harbor and Palm Beach, Fla., said. “It is very popular in Florida. We just hosted the international championships. I just love the camaraderie, and the people are marvelous.”
“It’s a great sport,” Martin said. The Woodlawn club now offers golf croquet, a slightly different game, each Tuesday afternoon, and will hold another round of introductory lessons at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 10.
The weather Sunday did nothing to slow down the competitors.
“The rules say we keep playing unless there is standing water on the court or lightning strikes,” Martin said.
Results were not available late Sunday.