Sullivan: This isn’t your grandparents’ croquet

Jerry Sullivan

It seems somehow fitting, this being a quaint little Buffalo story, that it all got started at a Buffalo Bills Backers bar. 

About 20 years ago, Ryan Thompson was a young lawyer living in New York City. As a Buffalo native, he naturally found his way to McFadden’s on Second Avenue, a popular destination for Bills fans on game days. Tim Russert used to stop from time to time. Marv Levy signed copies of his book there.

“One day, the owner of the bar, Doug Moore, said he had to get up in the morning to play croquet,” Thompson recalled early this week. “So he got me into croquet. He was president of the New York City Croquet Club, one of the original clubs in the United States.”

Ryan Thompson

Thompson began playing 6 Wicket croquet, the popular American version of the game, in Central Park. Before long, he was hooked, a faithful member of the “small community of croquet” and a decent player besides.

In 2012, Thompson moved back home. He knew about the Buffalo Croquet Club. They had been playing a simpler version of the game on the old lawn bowling courts at Delaware Park next to the Olmsted Conservancy Lodge on Parkside Avenue since 1999. He joined but wanted to bring something better to Buffalo.

“I wanted to play the more competitive American 6 Wicket version, which we played in New York City,” he said. 

He decided to start an annual 6 Wicket tournament at the Buffalo Croquet Club. Thompson had the idea, and he had the connections — major players from Florida and other places around the world where the sport was played on a high level. 

“The second Ryan said he was hosting a tournament, we all came,” said Chris Patmore, a native Englishman and Manhattan resident who is a top-rated player and a vice president of the NYC club. “We keep coming, because we have a great time here.”

Twenty-five of the best players in the country converged on Delaware Park this week for the fifth annual 6 Wicket tourney, a four-day event from Thursday through Sunday. It’s a smaller field than normal; the tournament was canceled last year due to Covid.

Still, it was quickly evident that the Buffalo stop occupies a special place in the hearts of the croquet community. 

“This is a good group,” said Stephanie Crockatt, the conservancy executive director. “They’re a fun group. They patronize all the local establishments.”

Would you expect anything less from a tournament that had its genesis in a Bills Backers establishment in New York City?

“There may be some drinking,” said Patmore, who began reciting Shakespeare when told there was an event later Thursday in the park. “We may go to the Parkside once in a while. We might go out until X o’clock in the morning. There’s not too many people worried about their 9 a.m. game.”

Don’t get him wrong, though. They’re dead serious about their sport, eager to share the history and the intricacies of a game that has its roots in 13th century France, where peasants wielded crudely constructed mallets to slam wooden balls through hoops made of willow branches. 

The first thing you noticed as you crossed over the 10th tee at the Delaware golf course and approached the croquet field was that everyone was dressed in white. It’s right there on the Etiquette and Rules page of the tourney program: “White attire required for practice and play.”

“It’s tradition,” said Lee Anderson, 76, who plays in the 250-member Sarasota County Croquet Club in Venice, Fla. She and her husband, Gary, are competing in the first flight, one down from the championship class.

Lee Anderson and husband Gary

“We go out to dinner together and we’re all in white,” she said. “That triggers people. They say, ‘What is everybody doing in white?’ We say, we just came off the croquet court.”

Anderson, a Cleveland native who has a summer home in Ohio, said the players in Florida carry cards, inviting new members to play croquet. They offer free lessons on Tuesdays and get the young people involved.

They’re all ambassadors for croquet, which has about 3,000 members in the national association. Norris Settlemyre, a Manhattanite who competes in the championship flight, took a reporter under his wing during practice on Thursday and spent half an hour explaining the nuances of croquet.

“When people think of croquet, they think of that back-yard game you played with your grandparents,” said David Isaacs, a top-flight player and treasurer of the national cricket association. “This isn’t that.”

Settlemyre, 73, made that clear during his little primer. The 6 Wicket game, one of three versions of croquet (along with Association and Golf), is complicated. Bob Gannon, president of the Buffalo club, says it’s “a little like pool and chess on a lawn.” 

That’s well-said, because strategy and positioning are critical in 6 Wicket. You’re not just slamming balls all over the yard like you did at Grandma’s house. 

In 6 Wicket, there are four colored balls that have to be played in sequence (blue, red, black, yellow.) One side has blue and black, the other red and yellow. The idea is to go through each of the six wickets twice — one going and once coming back — and hit the center peg, for a possible 26 points.

If you hit a ball, you get two more shots. You move your ball to the ball you just struck for the next shot. After that strike, the ball you hit is considered “dead” until you go through a wicket.. They have a scoreboard that keeps track of “deadness”. If you’re thoroughly befuddled, join the, uh, club.

Settlemyre said the basic idea is to control all the balls and set up a “break.” The top players are capable of winning on a single break, like running the table in pocket pool. It requires a great deal of accuracy. These wickets, after all, are only a dime’s width wider than the balls. 

Don’t get them started on whether croquet takes athletic ability, or whether it’s a real sport. “Guys and gals who pick it up by about 12 years old, by 15 they’re unbeatable,” Settlemyre said, “if they’re athletes.”

But it’s also the most egalitarian of sports. Settlemyre said he’s lost to players in the 90s. Isaacs said he also lost to a nonagenarian as a younger player. Webster Bull, a championship flight player, said croquet is one of three sports in the NCAA or Olympics in which women compete on the same level as men, along with equestrian and rifle shooting.

Webster Bull

In fact, croquet was played in the 1900 Olympics in Paris. The only players were Frenchmen and women. One spectator came. It was discontinued.

“I was an athlete,” said Bull, one of the top players in the field. “But here’s the great thing about croquet. I just turned 70. Croquet is the only game I know of that requires athletic ability and brain strategy that I can get better at every year of my life for the next 15 years, starting at age 70.”

Gannon was one of the original players in Buffalo. He remembers playing the old 9-Wicket game with friends, before the Buffalo Croquet Club was formed at 84 Parkside in 1999. They used to call it the “Croquet and Debate Club” because of all the rousing arguments that raged during play.

“There would be a lot of debating, especially the later it got at night,” Gannon said. “We played in different places, like Griffis Sculpture Park, a cemetery, the Park School. Then Bill Rupp got this place. It was in disrepair. He put in a sprinkler system, new lights and did well for Olmsted.

“It was just a bunch of guys playing a game and having fun. Now … ”

Now Buffalo’s tournament is a destination for top 6-Wicket players. On four courts over four days and more than 50 matches — singles and doubles — they matched wits and skill on the grass courts on Parkside. This isn’t a walk in the park. 

“No, this game is a combination of precision and power, and it’s a sport,” Patmore said. “It’s a game, it’s also a sport. You know it’s a sport because the best people in this game dedicate themselves. They practice hours upon hours, and they tend to be 20s, 30s, the top players.”

On Thursday evening, Bull and Settlemyre, the 70-year-olds, played a doubles match against two much younger opponents in the championship flight — Tim Rapuano, the two-time defending singles champion, and Paul Neubecker, a Buffalo resident who recently formed a “golf croquet” league at the Buffalo club. 

Norris Settlemyre 

Rapuano and Neubecker ran off to a big lead. But after the 75-minute clock ran out, Settlemyre had one last break to come from behind. For 20 minutes, he made a succession of crisp, accurate shots, putting his team in position to win and throwing a scare into the younger guys. 

But finally, Settlemyre missed a shot by the narrowest margin at one of the wickets. He and Bull knew it was over. They conceded the match. A few hours after showing a newcomer what the game was about, Settlemyre put on an inspiring live demonstration of croquet, only to fall short. 

Well, there were three more days of competition left. Settlemyre was looking forward to the singles, the truest test of an individual’s croquet skill. 

But it’s also a party, a celebration of the croquet community, the expression of Ryan Thompson’s visit for the game in Buffalo. 

“It’s great,” Gannon said. “It gives us a chance to show off the city. We take them out to the Sportsman. We have a dinner on Saturday night at the Terrace at Hoyt Talks this year. People come and are really surprised at how nice Buffalo is.”

Lee Anderson said she and her husband took a double-decker bus ride and were impressed with the city. She has come for the Garden Walk in the past and plans to return. Bull said he walked 45 minutes to and from the croquet courts and was amazed at how friendly the people were along the way. And to think, he’s a Massachusetts native and a Patriots fan.

“I was talking to Webster Bull,” Gannon said. “He’s one of the top players and he said Buffalo kind of has a reputation — for allowing drinking on the course. 

“It’s like the Bills Mafia thing,” he said with a big laugh. Which brings it full circle, you could say. 

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