Turf Magazine - October, 2008

SOUTH FEATURES

Wicket Nice

The world’s largest croquet facility
By Patrick White

Most golf superintendents will tell you that the most challenging parts of a golf course to maintain are the putting greens. Greens, after all, are subject to the most wear and tear, while also being the least forgiving of imperfections. Archie Peck is not a golf course superintendent, but he certainly can relate. As director of croquet and grounds at the National Croquet Center (www.croquetnational.com) in West Palm Beach, Fla., Peck oversees the maintenance of 12 croquet courts. “It’s very much like maintaining the golf greens on an 18-hole course,” he says of the care the courts require. “We have about 3 acres of TifDwarf bermuda, and we care for it the same way a golf course would. The one nice thing is that we don’t have contours, everything is laser-leveled and flat.”

The courts collectively make up 3 acres of TifDwarf bermudagrass, which is cared for much like a golf course putting green.

Palm Beach County has perhaps the largest collection of croquet courts in the country and the National Croquet Center, which opened eight years ago with 12 courts, is the largest individual croquet facility in the world. The club boasts some 300 members, many local residents, as well as croquet players from around the country.

Each of the 12 courts measures 84 by 105 feet, with additional “spillage” around the perimeter. “Each court works out to about 9,500 square feet,” says Peck. The site of all those meticulously maintained courts is impressive, he adds. “We take pride in being the largest croquet facility in the world. When people walk out of the clubhouse building and look out over the courts, we want them to see something fantastic, so we’re always maintaining the courts with that in mind.”

The 10-acre facility also has a significant amount of landscaping surrounding the courts and clubhouse to maintain. Most prominent is a large, open area of 419 bermuda. “We maintain the 419 much like a golf course fairway,” Peck explains. The area is used for gatherings, often with tents, so there is some wear-and-tear and compaction to guard against. The balance of the turf on the property is a lower-maintenance St. Augustinegrass, along with plantings and hedges that need to be maintained.

Photos courtesy of the National Croquet Center.
The National Croquet Center covers 10 acres, including landscaping and the croquet courts surrounding a 20,000-square-foot clubhouse.

It’s the playing surfaces that receive the most attention. “We aerify three times per year. One is a solid-tine aerification, and two times we’re pulling cores. Then we topdress with a USGA-approved coarse topdressing sand. We just aerified about 12 days ago [in late August] and we used about 50 tons of sand. I’m getting pretty tired of sand, it’s in my shoes, it’s everywhere,” Peck jokes.

A heavy, carpet, drag mat is used to brush the sand in, but as with golf courses, there is a window of time after aerification where the maintenance practice, and the remaining sand, does affect play. “It’s a little rough until the holes are filled completely with sand,” Peck explains.

The National Croquet Center works with local golf course superintendent, Brad Nelson, in preparing a turf maintenance program. “I’m in charge of the greens and grounds, but I’m a croquet professional, I’m not an agronomist,” says Peck. “Brad is our consultant, and he’s great. He comes every two weeks and tells us what to do. We follow his program to a tee, and the lawns have never been healthier.”

Peck is assisted in caring for the courts by two brothers, Carl and David Epps, who handle the mowing and other maintenance at the National Croquet Center. “They’re terrific, they’ve been here for seven years and we’re a real team.”

The National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., boasts 12 courts, making it the largest croquet facility in the world.

The courts were built to USGA golf green specs, so they drain very well. “We have a fabulous, computerized irrigation system, with Rainbird 950s on the corners and 750s on the perimeters and down the middle,” explains Peck.

Irrigation is typically done at night, and sometimes the center runs split shift, with Peck and the Epps brothers returning in the evening after play has finished for the day to complete tasks such as fertilization, or applications of herbicides and insecticides. “There are many times during the day where we’d love to be doing some sort of maintenance, but there are 25 players out on the courts,” says Peck.

The National Croquet Center does not overseed. “We don’t follow what I call a ‘resort mentality,’ where everything has to be green, green, green,” says Peck. “Resorts need to achieve that look, so they overseed extensively. We tried that once, seven years ago, with Poa trivialis, and we had to fight that stuff for a long time after that—it would creep back and some of the lawns would look like they had measles. So, we decided not to do that again. We keep things green much of the year with an extensive fertilization program.”

Peck says there is no drop in the quality of play if the turf on the courts browns out a bit. “We’re holding the national championships here in mid-October and we’ll drop our mowing heights for that, which will also brown the turf out some, and that’s all right. The players want speed, just like on a golf course. The top players want the courts to be fast, fast, fast.” He uses a golf course Stimpmeter (the courts roll around 12 for big tournaments), as well as a croquet-specific speed test called the Plumber method (testing the time it takes a croquet ball to roll from one end of the court to the other when struck by a skilled shooter).

Croquet play puts different stresses on the playing surface than those presented on a golf course. “There is only occasionally a divot, when someone tries what is called a ‘jump shot’ by digging the mallet into the ground, but the good players don’t do that, because it’s a penalty,” Peck explains. The facility hosts many events and corporate croquet outings, introducing novice players to the game, and using the courts for modified games such as “croquet golf,” which are quickly learned and prove universally fun for players of all skill levels.

While players themselves can occasionally damage the surface (shoes with flat soles are required), the biggest challenge is to maintain the turf and soil where the wickets are placed. “We have very sandy soil here, so we need to use very heavy, 7-pound cast-iron wickets with fins on them to keep them anchored firmly in place,” Peck explains. “The wickets need to be very tight. The total clearance for the ball is about half the width of a dime. The tolerances are tight, but play tends to loosen the wickets when they’re hit by the balls, so they need to be moved frequently, sometimes every day.”

Archie Peck is director of croquet and head of grounds at the National Croquet Center.

The wickets are moved about 6 inches from their previous location, leaving four holes that need to be repaired. The holes are not cut and filled, as on a golf green, but rather the holes are knifed closed and covered with green sand. “If you do it regularly and keep up with it, the areas heal pretty quickly,” says Peck. “It usually only takes four or five days before you can go back to a prior location.”

Two John Deere Gators are used for many maintenance tasks around the property and on the courts, while a dedicated spreader is used to handle topdressing applications. “It will hold 1,000 pounds of sand, but we try to use less to avoid compaction,” he explains. “It usually takes two or three weeks before the turf springs all the way back to being perfectly level, but it’s not a big issue.”

Recently, a contractor was brought in to check and fine-tune the laser-leveling of the perimeters of the court. “The ground does move over time,” says Peck. While small changes might not be noticeable on an undulating golf green, they do stand out on a board-flat croquet court. Sand was added where necessary to bring the surface back to level. “We were careful not to add more than .25 inch of sand to avoid killing the grass.”

Walk-behind, motorized spreaders are used to apply fertilizer. Mowing is accomplished with three Toro Greensmaster triplex mowers, two of which are dedicated to the TifDwarf courts and the other to the surrounding areas of 419 bermuda. The courts are typically maintained at .2 inch during the summer, and about .16 inch for important tournaments and events. “I can’t really get much lower than that with the triplexes,” says Peck. “We could go lower with walk-behind greensmowers, but it would take us forever to do the mowing.” The courts are mowed two times per week in the summer and three times in the winter, and every day leading up to tournaments.

Peck says he frequently fields calls from other facilities interested in installing or learning more about maintaining croquet courts. “They often want to know how much it costs. I tell them, ‘Well, it depends on what kind of court you want.’ Once you add irrigation and drainage, it can become expensive. Everything under the ground is more expensive than what you see on the surface.” He says that it’s relatively easy for a golf club to add a croquet court. Nearby PGA National, for example, has five courts. For others, Peck recommends working with an experienced local golf superintendent who knows what types of grasses-bentgrass versus bermuda, for instance-work best in that area, as well as the types of turfgrass insects and diseases to guard against, etc.

The National Croquet Center will host the world croquet championships in May 2009. With the world’s top “shooters” arriving, Peck plans to bring the courts to their top speed by “starving them of water a little bit” and purchasing a greens roller to further smooth and harden the playing surfaces. “We’ll brown them out and roll the heck out of them,” he promises. “They’ll look terrible, and it will drive me insane to seem them like that, but they’ll be very fast and they’ll play terrific. The players will love them.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.