I don’t believe that there are many instances in anyone’s lifetime where such a seemingly insignificant little notice has had such a profound effect on their lives. We were smitten! I could simply not understand how I had managed to live on this planet for almost sixty years without having had the profound pleasure of participating in this fantastic sport up until then. We took to it like ducks to water; the wonderful support, encouragement and patience of the members of the Berea Croquet Club will always be remembered, with special gratitude to Leister Sullivan in particular, who spent so many hours with me during those first few months.
When we relocated to the Western Cape in May of the following year our main criterion for settlement was the proximity of a good croquet club, and we have gone from strength to strength ever since. (As I write, Silvia and I have returned from the UK, where she competed in the Women’s Association Croquet World Championships at the Nottingham Croquet Club.)
In the late 19th century, when croquet was one of their favourite pastimes, the Victorian Britishestablished a number of clubs in what was then the Cape Colony, and the game was very popular here for many years thereafter. The profound effect on the social behavior of the British people was felt throughout the Commonwealth, and membership of most clubs dwindled; by the late 1950’s most of the original clubs had closed down.
A revival of the sport began in the 1960’s and until the early ‘70’s croquet was offered by most of the major universities in South Africa as the game was still moderately popular among members of the younger set. At that time interest in Golf Croquet had not been "discovered" by the World Croquet Federation, and Association Croquet was the only form of croquet seriously played.
Comparing South Africa and the United States
In 1981 croquet was included in the South African Games, held in Pretoria, where we were able to field two strong teams. Notable was the presence, as official observer, of Jack R. Osborn, founder and president of the fledgling U.S. Croquet Association. This led to an invitation from Osborn to the South Africans to visit the U.S. the following year.
In the northern spring of 1982 a six-person Springbok team travelled to Palm Beach, Florida to play a test match against the United States, alternately playing according to International Laws and the newly codified American Rules. South Africa won the event by the narrowest of margins, ably empowered by a schoolboy, 14-year-old Reginald Bamford.
The Western Cape is today the power house of croquet in South Africa. We have five very active SACA affiliated clubs in Cape Town and a few more smaller non-affiliated clubs in the city and stretched out along the South coast. The major Cape Town clubs are Kelvin Grove Club, Helderberg Village CC, Somerset West CC, Fish Hoek CC and Rondebosch CC.
The Rondebosch Croquet Club, which celebrated its centenary last year, is the oldest surviving croquet club in South Africa. Both Rondebosch and Kelvin Grove are situated in the older and more traditionally established Southern Suburbs area of Cape Town, where one plays under the North-Eastern face of the magnificent Table Mountain. The chairman of the Rondebosch CC and his committee are working to increase their membership figures and have done a lot in recent months to improve their three lawns and renovate their facilities. The Western Cape Croquet Association GC Championships held at Rondebosch this year proved to be a very successful and a very well hosted event.
Association Croquet greatly diminished in 21st Century
The Fish Hoek Croquet Club has two lawns and a very active membership but, as with Rondebosch and Kelvin Grove, only Golf Croquet is played at this club. In my opinion, however, Fish Hoek is the most progressive club in the region, with the greatest number of conscientious and improving GC players. The greatest local advantage of its members is their ability to deal with the fierce winds sweeping through the gap in the mountains, over the traditionally ‘dry’ peninsular town of Fish Hoek on the Western shore of False Bay. These winds are capable of blowing you off your stance as you address the ball. Visitors typically see their ball either run well past their hoops or in the other direction watch it stop half-way to the intended destination--until they figure out how to cope with the gales.
The Town of Somerset West, on the other hand, sheltered in the bowl of the Hottentots Holland mountains, lies with the Helderberg at its back and the calm Northern shores of False Bay at its feet. The Helderberg Village CC and Somerset West CC are situated within a few kilometres of each other and probably represent the most concentrated croquet locale in the country.
The Somerset West CC has four lawns and has hosted the Western Cape CA Association Croquet Championships for the past seven years. The club has a robust membership, and although Association Croquet is not played at Somerset West CC other than during the annual West Cape tournament, it is the home club of Judith Hanekom and Willem Louw, two of the premier Association Croquet players in the country.
Judith is also the current Women’s Golf Croquet World Champion and would have represented South Africa at the Women’s AC World Champs in July had personal commitments not intervened. (Perhaps these two fine players will encourage their fellow members to learn and take up the rewarding game of Association Croquet.)
The Helderberg Village CC is my home club. Although we have only two lawns, we are arguably the most progressive and active club in the region in 2015. We have a steadily increasing membership (currently standing at about 60) and most importantly, we're the only club in the Western Cape where Association Croquet is still a regular weekly fixture and where this form of the game is actively promoted. Our members participate in competitions across the country in both forms of the sport. (We believe it's the tranquil country atmosphere prevailing in our idyllic, vineyard-strewn region that makes us seem happier and more relaxed than most of our countrymen!)
Kelvin Grove is one of the premier sporting and social clubs in South Africa, with reciprocity with many similar clubs around the world. Their croquet section has more than sixty members, making it the biggest club in the region, but Golf Croquet is the only form of the sport played there. Kelvin has two permanent croquet lawns and, as with Helderberg Village, the main club also offers bowls, so when required an additional two croquet courts can be set up on the bowling greens. In 2008, when the Golf Croquet World Championships were played in South Africa, the event was hosted by the Cape Town Clubs; the Helderberg Village and Kelvin Grove clubs were prime venues, because their croquet lawns are as fast and true as the ones maintained for the bowlers.
Why Golf Croquet dominates the sport in South Africa
The gradual decline of Association Croquet and the steady rise in interest in Golf Croquet as experienced the world over has been more rapid and much more significant in South Africa than elsewhere. The situation as it developed at the St. Andrews Club in the Eastern Cape city of East London may go a long way in explaining some of the underlying causes of the accelerated rise of Golf Croquet in the country in general.
The East London Golf Club is one of the oldest golf clubs in South Africa. For many years this venue was shared by its members and those of the St. Andrews Bowling Club. A symbiotic relationship existed in which aging members of the golfing fraternity gravitated to bowls when they were no longer able to cope with the rigours of the undulating 18-hole course. Croquet was subsequently introduced by a few enthusiasts, and interest developed steadily over the ensuing years until the croquet club eventually had full use of one of the bowling greens of St. Andrews.
And then the golf cart came along and as the use of this innovation became more popular and widespread, golfers were able to actively participate for a number of years beyond what would have been their original retirement date. Memberships in the bowling club steadily declined and as the more easily assimilated version of Golf Croquet seemed to offer a better option to the aging golfers, membership of the croquet club steadily increased. The Bowling Club eventually shut down completely, and today Golf Croquet only is played on all three of greens formerly used for bowling.
Association Croquet still played regularly
The Berea CC is the only club in South Africa where Association Croquet is still primarily played. When I joined there were a few ladies who had very recently been introduced to Golf Croquet and who played on a couple of mornings a week. but the pervading feeling was that ‘proper croquet’ was played on Saturdays and Wednesdays and that the introduction of GC was accommodated provided that it didn’t interfere.
In the rest of the country the picture is very different, however. The only other South African Croquet Association (SACA) affiliated club in KZ-N is the Pieter Maritzburg CC where Golf Croquet only has been played for many years now. Although some of the country’s best AC players hail from Gauteng, the clubs in this province have also been populated by predominantly GC players for some time now.
In fact, Association Croquet is under dire threat of extinction in South Africa, and unless some significant positive action is taken by SACA and the two most influential provincial associations in Gauteng and the Western Cape, I fear that we shall fall below critical mass and cross the event horizon into oblivion. We hope the current incumbents in positions of influence in these associations have the interest and the will to take appropriate action and put programmes in place to ensure the survival of this marvelous sport in South Africa.
International players throng to South Africa
The SACA National tournament is also open to internationals; we especially welcome entries from Association Croquet players. The format is very similar for both AC and GC in the Nationals and the WCCA tournaments: players compete in singles and doubles events from level advanced games to restricted handicap games.
The South Africa Association Croquet Nationals are scheduled for 23 to 28 November 2015, and the next WCCA Association Croquet Championships are scheduled for February 2016. Entry forms are available on the SACA website, www.croquet.org.za.
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