EAST GULL LAKE -- Often viewed as a backyard family game, croquet may have lost its appeal for generations of adults set on finding other challenging and social sporting competitions, like golf.
But an area croquet league -- yes, there is such a group -- is attempting to educate people on the fun and strategic world of croquet.
Madden's Resort on Gull Lake has the Brainerd lakes area's only croquet courts, which are open to the public with advance reservations. The Madden's croquet courts are rectangle-shaped, flat playing surfaces made of bent grass, the type of grass on golf putting greens.
The courts are set up for American regulation six-wicket croquet, a four-ball game of croquet that is most popular in the United States in tournaments and in most croquet clubs. When the Madden's croquet courts were built in 1986, the Madden's Croquet League was started.
Jay Simon, a longtime Madden's Croquet League member, gave newcomer Shari Johnson a few pointers last Wednesday at a league practice match.
The other nearest Minnesota croquet courts are in Minneapolis and St. Paul. According to the official U.S. Croquet Association Web site, about 5,000 to 10,000 people in the United States and Canada play six-wicket croquet regularly at approximately 600 venues, ranging from modest lawns on municipal turf and in real estate developments and residences to large multi-lawn facilities at sports and country clubs and resorts.
Backyard croquet is played on the traditional nine-wicket, two-stake, double-diamond court and is a casual, social game. Using up to six balls and as many players, the many varieties of this game are usually played with inexpensive and lightweight six-ball sets sold for as little as $35. Backyard croquet is played on long grass or other slow or irregular surfaces.
Six-wicket croquet is a complex game that calls for well maintained, level lawns cut very short and involves complex strategy and advanced shot-making skills. The mallets are sturdy and heavy with a square hitting surface while the croquet balls are larger and heavier than those used in backyard croquet.
Brainerd Postmaster Don Rasmussen has been a Madden's league member since the courts opened. Before then, he had never played six-wicket croquet, only the backyard game. He was encouraged to join by friends in his Rotary Club. He instantly became hooked.
Don Rasmussen watched as his croquet ball made it through the wicket as he practiced the game at Madden's Croquet Courts. Other croquet league players include Randy Hoghaug (left) and Jay Simon.
"I liked the challenge," said Rasmussen. "There is a lot of strategy. It's almost like chess."
At its peak the league had about 26 members, but now that number has dropped to about 10 croquet players. Rasmussen is hoping to boost league membership by recruiting novice croquet players who would like to learn. People of all professions play the game, and it can be an excellent sport for couples, he said. Often league members go out for dinner afterward.
The croquet league plays each Wednesday night starting today until about mid-October. Cost is about $60 per player for equipment rental during the entire league season. Usually members arrive at the courts at 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays to hit a few croquet balls and get ready to play. Games usually last from 6 to 7:15 p.m.
League members get a reduced price if they play croquet at Madden's other than on league night. Cost to play a one-hour and 15-minute croquet game for four players is $16, or $4 each, for court and equipment rental. League members wear dress whites to play and often shorts on hot summer days.
Rasmussen believes most people in the Brainerd lakes area simply don't know that the Madden's croquet courts and the league exist. Often resort guests stop and watch league members play, intrigued at the game they've only known as a backyard casual sport.
"Guests are dumbfounded," said Rasmussen. "But it looks easier than it really is."
"When I started, I thought there wasn't much to it," said Jay Simon, a croquet league member. "There was."
League members will teach novices if they'd like to learn how to play croquet. Just show up around 5:30-5:45 p.m. Wednesdays at the Madden's croquet courts to play. Rasmussen makes a schedule of who plays whom on league nights, but tries to set up beginners to play other beginners at first so they don't feel too intimidated by the better players.
The games can become quite competitive, he said.
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