For some, the word “croquet” conjures up images of genteel Victorian ladies politely tapping balls through wickets at summer garden parties. For others, it recalls childhood games at back yard picnics.
To the thousands of croquet enthusiasts around the world, however, croquet is an adult competitive sport, and to spotlight the serious side of the game, the Ponte Vedra Croquet Club has imported a world-ranked croquet player from Australia to help grow the game locally.
Jim Nicholls, who has competed in croquet matches around the world, was recruited by club founder and U.S. Croquet Association Hall of Fame Member John Curington to come to Ponte Vedra.
“Like many people, I played croquet as a child,” said Curington, who went on to compete in more than 100 croquet tournaments across the nation and in several foreign countries. “Now I want to see more croquet in my back yard, Ponte Vedra.”
Curington said he recruited Nicholls to come to the First Coast after an extended search. Based at the club’s home at 100 Mosquito Control Road through the end of April, Nicholls will oversee a series of free weekend open house lessons and other club activities. His mission: To help raise the profile of a sport he believes has a lot going for it.
“It’s a real sport,” said Nicholls, who is currently ranked 32 in the world and in the top 10 in his native Australia. “People have likened it to billiards on grass. There’s a lot of strategy involved.”
A financial planner for a large accounting firm, Nicholls was in his mid-30s when he took up croquet. The sport has since taken him to competitions around the globe, where he’s found that croquet seems to hold particular appeal to people who like chess or bridge.
“It’s the tactical, strategic side of the game,” he said, adding that accountants and engineers also seem attracted to croquet. “You get into the geometry, the angles,” he said. “You’re constantly weighing risk and reward.”
A sport for all ages
Yet the sport is also uniquely well suited to attract a much broader audience, Nicholls said.
“In Australia, we say croquet is the game for people ages 9 to 90,” he said, noting that in some forms of croquet the matches can be as short as 30 minutes. “It’s a non-contact sport, so parents don’t have to worry about those types of issues for their kids.”
The game is also well-suited for active retirees: The Ponte Vedra Croquet Club, Nicholls said, has some strong players who are well into their 80s. What’s more, unlike other professional sports, croquet allows men and women to compete against one another or on co-ed teams.
“We’re one of the few sports where you can go to the world championships and men and women compete on equal terms,” he said.
To help raise awareness of the sport locally, Nicholls and other club members will be offering free open house sessions Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. and Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m. where local residents can learn the fundamentals of the sport. Those who are interested in continuing with croquet can consider becoming members of the Ponte Vedra Croquet Club (www.pontevedracroquetclub.com), which offers a variety of membership levels for both beginners and serious players alike.
“There is a big social side of croquet, even among the top players,” Nicholls said. “We may have ‘white line fever’ on the lawn, but off the lawn it’s all pretty friendly.”