Sally Patterson greets others with warm handshakes, bright eyes and a wry smile.
A floppy bucket hat, weighed down with enameled pins from a variety of locations and events, sits low on her head, shielding her eyes from the morning South Carolina sun. She is otherwise dressed in white, from shirt to shoes.
It's her assassin's uniform.
Whatever her behavior and demeanor in her regular life, Ms. Patterson becomes a ruthless sharpshooter, a bloodthirsty killer, when confronted with six wickets and some candy-colored balls.
One of several croquet regulars at Aiken's Green Boundary Club, all of whom don the traditional whites, Ms. Patterson has taken up the cause, and mallet, of croquet. The game, which differs wildly from the clunky impostor widely played in back yards, combines the strategy of chess, billiards-style shot-making skill and an adherence to the Old World customs long associated with the game.
The game's rules are complicated. There's more to croquet than racing around wire wickets and sending anyone who gets in the way careening into a rosebush. There is a scoring system, based on wickets passed; a phenomenon known as dead ball, which eliminates the opportunity to whack away at the opposition; and an honor system based on, of all things, good sportsmanship.
"The shooter's word is always final in croquet," said Jerry Devitt, a regular at Green Boundary games. "Even if there is an argument, the person who did the shooting will make the final decision. The game really requires a certain amount of courtesy and decorum. There is no trash talking out here."
As might be expected in a game that values extreme accuracy (a quarter standing on end would fill the gap between a ball and the sides of a wicket), a croquet court is a carefully constructed and meticulously groomed landscape. The court at Green Boundary was laser leveled.
"It's built just like a golf green," Mr. Devitt said, his hand sweeping across the emerald expanse. "This court is within 1 degree, at any spot, of being perfectly flat."
Playing croquet does come with a price tag. The mallets are most often custom ordered and made of exotic materials such as aircraft aluminum and lignum vitae - reputed to be the world's hardest wood.
"Really, they don't cost much more than a titanium-head golf driver," Mr. Devitt said. "Sometimes less. They are usually about $300."
On top of that, a set of six wickets can cost as much as $350, and the precision-milled plastic balls can easily cost $250 for a set of four. Still, Bob Newburn, who founded the croquet club at Green Boundary, said expense isn't what has kept the game from becoming more widely accepted.
"It can be hard getting people interested in the game because it is so complicated," he said. "It's something you really have to get into and work at, both physically and mentally."
He said the game's advantage is its focus on finesse rather than fitness, on precision rather than power.
"It can be played by anyone," he said. "It can be played by retirees with physical limitations. It can be played by young children."
Unlike many games, there is a lot of freedom offered in terms of technique. There is no established "correct" stance or swing and no strategy considered superior.
"There's no one way to play," Mr. Devitt said. "You can play aggressively or defensively. And if you get four croquet players together, you'll get four opinions on which is correct."
Watching from the sidelines, Mr. Newburn pointed toward Ms. Patterson, who had her next victim, Sue Broderick, in her sights.
"Black is going to wipe me out," Ms. Broderick said, watching as Ms. Patterson's ebony ball skittered across the breadth of the court.
"Every chance I get," Ms. Patterson replied, smiling as her shot knocked Ms. Broderick's ball out of wicket range.
Mr. Newburn smiled and explained that it's shots like that keep people coming back.
"I'm sure that tomorrow, Sally won't remember the easy wickets she made," he said. "What she'll remember is these long shots, the times she hit a ball from way out."
Grimacing at the change in situation, Mr. Devitt watched as Ms. Broderick, his partner in the match, struggled to regain position. Shrugging, he pointed a thumb toward a satisfied-looking Ms. Patterson.
"She's really making a shambles of us," he said. "Retribution will set in, though. We can get her. That's the beauty of croquet."
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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