HYDE PARK — This is not backyard croquet, the members of the Chicago Croquet Club assure.
The members meet in view of Lake Michigan at Jackson Park’s bowling green for rounds of serious croquet every Saturday morning.
“American-rule six-wicket is what we play,” said Tom O’Laughlin, club president, leaning on the square-headed mallet donned by croquet pros.
And there are croquet pros.
Ellen Fox said her son, Will was able to boost his game training with pros in Maine over the summer. She brought Will down to Jackson Park on Saturday morning to practice the difficult between-the-legs jump shot through a wicket.
“Who knew you could be a pro and travel around the world?” Fox said.
The Jackson Park players may have a room full of mallets in the recently re-roofed and refurbished clubhouse, but they don’t consider themselves professionals.
A big purse in a croquet tournament may be $5,000, said Barb O’Laughlin. She said the club recently swept a tournament in Rockford, but the top prize was $500.
The club can certainly claim some bragging rights. Rick Cooper, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the club treasurer, had a eight-wicket run the weekend before, a impressive feat he chalked up to good strategy.
Cooper explained that unlike backyard version, croquet is very much a strategic game based on lining up opponents balls on the green to maximize the extra two strokes a player gets from a collision.
Cooper has lured his 11-year-old son into the game, and a youth league will start this week with young players recruited from the neighborhood schools.
“The goal is when I’m 70, I don’t have to come out and set up the course myself,” Cooper joked.
He admitted that another goal is to get enough interest to get the park’s second bowling green back in shape so the lawn bowling club and the croquet club can play without interference.
“It should be like a putting green,” Cooper said, pointing to the lumpy adjoining green that was more weeds than grass.
The croquet and bowling clubs split the cost of maintaining the green, hiring the landscapers from the park’s Japanese garden to make an extra stop to care for the lawn.
The summer heat nearly destroyed both fields, but the two clubs were able to raise enough money to get one green playable and are hoping to get enough interest in the sport to justify fixing up the other field.
“It’s expensive to keep the lawns from dying,” Cooper said, adding that the club hoped to one day raise enough for a sprinkler system.
The club, now of about 100 members, came together more than a decade ago when Cooper and friends would sneak in to clandestinely set up wickets.
“We may have been doing something nefarious like jumping over the fence, and thought we should just start a club,” Cooper said.
The Jackson Park bowling green is the only one on the South Side and one of the few in the city. Many of the members drive from the northern suburbs just to play on a true croquet course, though many admitted to playing at the scattered private courses in backyards.
“We all met by coveting the green,” Cooper said.
The club is hoping that the youth league and the Wednesday night open play sessions will build interest in the game and teach a new generation to covet the green.