Kings of the Queen's Game
While the 2009 Georgia State Croquet Championship was the first event at Reynolds Plantation sanctioned by the United States Croquet Association, croquet has almost folkloric beginnings on the property originally named Port Armor. An article from the May 1, 1989, edition of The New York Times tells the story of a $25,000 championship event – still today the largest singles purse in the history of United States croquet. The huge prize attracted 57 players from as far away as England and Australia and as the field narrowed, rumors of $10,000 wagers on matches spread around the crowd of 600.
Two finalists emerged from the intense competition: Neil Spooner, a top ranked player from Australia, and his unlikely adversary, an unranked painting contractor from Monroe, Ga., by the name of Harold Brown. Despite being the local favorite, Brown lost, comically blaming the fact that, “They made me wear shoes.”
A generation later, Jim Hall is among the few that practice their croquet strokes on the lone remaining croquet lawn in the community. He is an active local advocate of the game, offering to teach anyone willing to learn.
“Croquet is a wonderful game for everyone, regardless of athletic ability, gender, or age,” said Hall, 56, who originally is from Monroe, La., and has lived at Reynolds Plantation full-time since 2003. “In what other sport can a middle-aged person begin playing, and a few years later be competing on a national level?”
Hall, who started playing croquet seriously nine years ago, is also quick to discern that the sport provides everyone a level playing field. “Men and women compete together,” he said, “and players are flighted by their ability, so everyone competes against someone at their own skill level.”
Between traveling to croquet tournaments around the Southeast, Hall can be found many days alone on the Reynolds Plantation lawn, mallet in hand, working on his rushes, peels, and scatter shots – the terms used for the skills executed in a match – all the while dreaming of ways to re-launch croquet into the spotlight it once enjoyed around Lake Oconee.
Together with Gray Ferguson, the senior vice president of operations for Reynolds Plantation, Hall started a campaign to hold a major croquet tournament on Reynolds soil. Their initial steps have been successful, as they quickly convinced the USCA to sanction a state championship at Reynolds Plantation.
“Reynolds Plantation had a long history involving croquet,” explains Ferguson. “There was a hiatus when Reynolds acquired Port Armor, but now we are making a commitment to bring croquet back to this ideal and picturesque location.”
Two decades have brought much change at the former Port Armor since the unsanctioned Masters of Croquet tournament first was held. This spring, the stark white tents provided brilliant contrast to the lush turf, as Reynolds Plantation welcomed players and onlookers to the site of the Georgia State Championship. The inviting and expansive back porch of The Landing clubhouse and the elevated terrace provide excellent points to view the action. Add spectacular lake and golf course views, and the croquet lawn at Reynolds Plantation proves itself as a stunning and worthy venue.
“The lawn plays better than it ever has, thanks to our awesome golf course maintenance crews led by Lane Singleton,” Hall said. “Tournament players are pretty picky about the court and I heard nothing but compliments all weekend. The players were also delighted by the delicious food and attentive service offered by The Landing Clubhouse.”
Even in the midst of the championship, the players were kind enough to wander into the crowd and explain the game to those less familiar with croquet.
“It can be a little confusing to watch if you don’t know what’s going on,” said state tournament competitor Jimmy Huff. “But the more you watch, the more fun it becomes. Of course, it’s even more fun to play.”
The state competition was American Six-Wicket Croquet, a version of the game derived from classic Association Croquet. Governed by the USCA, balls are always played in the same sequence (blue, red, black yellow) throughout each game and there are various other regulations that apply. The first player to get both croquet balls through every wicket twice (going through forward and backward) is the winner.
As Sunday rolled around, a jovial mood turned slightly more competitive, as Hall faced defending champion Roy Gee from Carrollton in the finals. It was as if each thwack of the wooden mallets echoed those from decades ago, as if croquet never left Lake Oconee to find a New York, or a Palm Beach location.
Though there wasn’t a huge purse, wild wagering, or 600 fans, one can’t help but consider that croquet is back. And as the finals came to an exciting end, this time the local boy was victorious. By a single wicket.
“I have to say winning the Georgia Championship was not expected and extremely gratifying,” Hall said. “I won against a solid field and it will be a lifelong memory.
“The real reason we brought the tournament to Reynolds Plantation,” Hall continued, “was to promote croquet in the Lake Oconee Area. Reynolds’ support and cooperation has been outstanding, and I know the tournament players were delighted with their experience. I also know we sparked a lot of local interest and excitement about the event. Hopefully it gives us the impetus to create an active croquet community at Lake Oconee enjoyed by many.”