A lot of people have played croquet at least once, whether in their own backyard or someone else’s. But they haven’t played it the way Jodie Fusz Rugart plays it.
Rugart, 62, of Frontenac, is a master of the mallet, a whiz with the wickets. In a game that has way more strategy and geometry than you would expect, not to mention requiring the deft touch of a golfer on the green, Rugart has mastered every aspect of it in becoming one of the top players in America.
“It’s a wonderful sport,” she said. “You love it. You can play at all ages. My father (Lou Fusz, of car dealership fame) played until he was 94, until he went into the hospital to die. There’s a lot of chess in it, a lot of thinking, like billiards or pool in croquet shots. And then like golf courses, lawns are going to be different.”
Rugart finished 2019 and 2020 as the No. 2 ranked women’s player in America after finishing 2018 ranked No. 1. In April, she was ranked third in the nation in the Grand Prix standings (in croquet, men and women are on equal footing on the court) and was the top woman, but she knew that was going to drop because Grand Prix points are based on tournaments played, and having moved back to St. Louis from Florida for much of the year, trading a croquet hotbed for one a bit more off the beaten croquet path, the tournaments are harder to come by.
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When it comes to courts and players, Kansas City is much bigger in croquet than St. Louis is (there are no public courts or croquet clubs here), but when it comes to being the cream of the crop, Rugart puts St. Louis on top, even if she has to travel longer distances to get to events.
Rugart didn’t take up the sport seriously until 2007 when she met her spouse, Conrad Rugart, who is also a championship-level player. But Jodie has surpassed her husband; in the handicap system that croquet uses, which starts at 20 and goes down, Jodie is a -1.5, while Conrad is -0.5. “I’m a little bit better,” she said. “That’s OK.”
‘I see things’
What sets her apart from him, Jodie said, is a better feel for the strategy, what she calls “the dance” as players maneuver their balls around the court, always having to think several shots ahead.
“The first time I saw a game played like it should be played, I saw the dance,” she said. “You have to see that a little bit. That’s why I’m a better player than my husband. I see things. Don’t ask me how or why. I have a more mathematical mind, I can see those kind of things. It’s athletics too: you have to have good eye-ball coordination, you have to understand angles and like any sport, you have to practice. You can’t just say, OK, I’m out here.”
Still, it took a while for her to fully grasp the game. “I remember a year after I started playing, calling one of my sisters and saying, ‘When does this sport click in? I’m an athlete, I can pick this up, but I’m not getting this damn game.’” she said. “Finally it started clicking for me. There’s a learning curve; it is harder than it looks.”
Croquet comes at the end of a long athletic career for Rugart. She was a multi-sport athlete at Ladue High and played indoor soccer until she was 40 and had spinal fusion surgery. She just recently gave up tennis, but still plays golf, which might seem like a likely connection to croquet except that putting is done from the side while croquet shots are done with the mallet — her model, with a graphite head and shaft, costs about $500 — swung between the legs.
And what shots she can make, as she demonstrated to this writer, who had his ball blocking the wicket. She swung down sharply on her ball, popping it in the air, over his ball but still through the wicket, to move ahead. (She was up 7-1 when we suspended our golf croquet match.)
Not a walk in the park
And while croquet comes off as a bit genteel — at many places, players are required to wear all white, including hats and shoes — it doesn’t mean it’s easy. On a normal day of croquet, Rugart can walk seven or eight miles, with some games taking 2½ to 3 hours.
While backyard croquet is usually nine-wicket croquet, Rugart usually plays six wicket, or American, croquet. (There’s also association croquet and golf croquet.) In singles, one player has to maneuver two balls through the course, but it’s rare in anything approaching a straight line. While the obvious play would often seem to be to advance the ball towards the next wicket, the strategic play often involves hitting the ball in a completely different direction to set up something else. And where many people in the backyard often delight in blasting another player’s ball into the distance, at the highest level, it’s advantageous to keep the other player’s ball or balls nearby to use as targets for roquets, which is a shot that hits another ball. Roquets lead to croquets, which are free shots received for hitting another ball and which allow you to pick up and place your ball next to the ball you just hit, so you want to position precisely where that ball you hit is going to end up.
Rugart has installed a croquet court with an artificial turf surface in her backyard — you try maintaining a surface where the grass has to be as short as a putting green and perfectly level — so the game is never far away. She held a tournament there over Independence Day weekend.
There isn’t much money to be made in croquet. Some tournaments have only recently begun to have first prizes that run to $500. And it’s not a big spectator sport, so Rugart goes through life with not a whole lot of people knowing that there aren’t many people who do what she does as well as she does it.
“I think people are amazed to hear it,” she said. “We have some friends in New Jersey who brag on me. ‘She’s a world-famous croquet player.’ It’s kind of cute.”