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Central Park the Scene for Wickets and Mallets

September 18, 1985

NEW YORK (AP) _ They met in the middle of Central Park, 48 combatants carrying large wooden mallets, each determined to beat the others. For the losers - champagne on the sidelines.

The event is the U.S. Croquet Association National Championships, drawing players to the middle of Manhattan for six days of competition.

″If you watch these players, they’re sweating like Palmer is over a putt or McEnroe over a passing shot,″ said USCA President Jack Osborn, a 25-year veteran known as ″Mr. Croquet,″ on the tournament’s opening day Tuesday.

In addition to their opponents, the players face other problems competing in their all-white outfits on the four freshly-trimmed grass fields in Central Park.

″You can’t allow a guy flying by on roller skates carrying a humongous radio to affect your play,″ said Debbie Prentis, 29, who recalled that in one of her four years at the tourney runners in the New York Marathon finished the race right next to the croquet fields.

″When I first came, it was like this isolated patch of intense competition in the flow of action throughout the park,″ said Mrs. Prentis, of West Palm Beach, Fla. ″There were bands jamming ... but now it’s very familiar.″

″We’ve had everything here from deluges of rain to a ’40s band playing during the finals,″ said her husband, tournament director Teddy Prentis, 36, during Tuesday’s opening round of the ninth annual competition. ″The players were kind of dancing to the music.″

This year’s championships at the park brought together 48 players aged 15 to 74 who have ignored the public’s perception of the sport as a backyard pastime and take whacking their ball through a hoop seriously.

″Most people hear croquet and they have a vision of little coathanger hoops and a childhood game,″ said Osborn. ″That’s understandable, because that’s where most people are exposed to the game.″

Ray Bell, the defending national doubles champion, agreed the competition bears no resemblance to the game most often associated with the annual family barbecue.

″It’s an entirely different game. The field is mowed like a putting green; there’s just one-eighth of an inch clearance between the ball and the hoop,″ explained Bell, 36, of Phoenix, Ariz. ″The combination of skill and strategy puts it on a skill level no different than golf.″

The tournament has grown to the point that Central Park’s four fields can no longer accommodate the event and next year the championships are moving to California. None of the players expressed much surpise at the game’s growing popularity.

Osborn, smoking a cigarette minutes before taking to the eight-wicket field for an opening round match, said the game’s attraction ″is like any other sport. It’s interesting, to plan your shots and conspire against your oppponent.″

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