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On BHI: Croquet, Anyone?

By David W. Frederiksen, posted Jul 5, 2024
The Bald Head Island Croquet Club formed on the exclusive Brunswick County island in the 1980s. (Photo c/o The Bald Head Island Club)

If you haven’t guessed by now, this discordant phonetic spelling corresponds with one of modern history’s oldest sports and a long-standing, celebrated mainstay of recreation at nearby Bald Head Island.

“For many people, the image of croquet is either a backyard children’s game or something out of Alice in Wonderland,” said Jeff Soo, Bald Head Island Club’s (BHIC) croquet director and a national croquet champion. “They would be surprised to learn that it’s a sport with three main versions, regulated by national and international associations.”

Dating back to 14th-century France, where peasants hit softball-size wooden balls through hand-crafted wickets with shepherd’s crooks, croquet is played competitively in more than 20 countries, including England, Scotland, Ireland and Australia.

“Two teams of two balls each, whether in singles or doubles, compete to score the most wickets, which must be scored in order,” said Eileen Soo, BHIC croquet instructor and Jeff Soo’s spouse.

The Bald Head Island Croquet Club formed on the island in the 1980s.

Players, each with a matching color mallet and ball, compete on a grass-covered court roughly twice the size of a tennis court. Wooden stakes with multi-color stripes indicating the order of play at either end of the court represent the game’s “starting” and “turning” points, with competitors driving balls through six or more wickets laid out in a pattern. Whoever completes the course and hits the starting stake first wins.

“The shorter grass, much like a putting green, and the narrow wickets reward precise shooting and the ability to anticipate your opponent’s strategy,” Eileen Soo said. “Anyone who has played backyard croquet has already seen the basics, but new players will catch on fast.”

Not unlike the turf courts that play home to croquet.

“While the (croquet) courts aren’t quite as fast as a putting green,” Jeff Soo said, “they are much flatter and faster than you might expect if you are only familiar with backyard croquet,” adding that the turf at Bald Head Club is “paspalum, a salt-tolerant grass that is also used on many coastal golf courses.” 

And, apparently, it works, as the Bald Head Island Croquet Club hosted a variety of significant croquet tournaments and competitions over the years, including the N.C. State Singles Croquet Tournament, the N.C. Croquet Open, as well as the Solomon Trophy International Rules Tournament.

The club has also produced its fair share of hard-hitting croquet crusaders, with past club members Bill and Billie Jean Berne inducted into the Croquet Hall of Fame in 2003. In addition, Jeff Soo has won 21 USCA national championship titles and been selected to the U.S. Croquet Team 15 times, three times as team captain. Together, the Soos are considered world-class croquet instructors, coaching and mentoring the next generation of mallet-and-ball enthusiasts.

Longtime Bald Head Island Croquet Club member and membership chair Kim Gottshall credits the Soos with helping to create a thriving croquet community of 80 members and counting. 

“They are passionate about teaching the game to others in a relaxed and encouraging atmosphere,” she said.

Competitively, three main versions of the sport are played in the U.S.: association croquet, American six-wicket croquet and golf croquet. 
“We primarily play two versions of the game at our club,” Eileen Soo said. “(Golf croquet) is a fast-paced game popular with players who want lots of interaction and short turns, while (American six-wicket) is a game that rewards patient strategy and consistent shot-making skills.”

And just about anyone can play, she said.

“The game can be played by almost anyone, from seasoned players to family groups, since the game doesn’t require great physical ability,” said Eileen, who worked in the computer science field. “On Bald Head Island, we have dedicated players who play several times a week and travel to compete in tournaments, but we also have family groups who are seeing the game for the first time.

Membership fees to join a croquet club in the U.S. vary, but most begin at a couple hundred dollars for an individual, depending on the club’s prestige.

Bill and Billie Jean Berne, among the first to build a house on Bald Head Island, were “the leaders of the croquet club from its inception until they left the island in the early 2000s,” Jeff said. “The first two (Bald Head Island Club) croquet courts were originally built in the mid-or late-’80s, right next to the clubhouse. This was expanded and reconfigured to three courts in the late ’90s or early 2000s.”

More courts are on the way.

“The planned expansion to five courts gives us a lot of flexibility,” Jeff said. “We can have more planned croquet activities as well as bring out new players at a time convenient to them. We hope this will let us keep current players engaged and bring in new ones.”
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