ELLSWORTH — After three days chock full of croquet, Northeast Harbor resident Neil Houghton had made it all the way to the championship flight final of the Woodlawn Mini Lobster Tournament.
This match was the best of the best, featuring the two top players out of 28, who were divided into four flights based on their handicap.
Trailing by two hoops, or wickets, Houghton was playing neck and neck with challenger Connor Helms, an attorney from Oklahoma City, as they headed into the back half of a hotly contested match on Sunday, Sept. 11.
Before that match, beginning Thursday morning at 8 a.m. up until Saturday morning when the playoffs began, each player competed in six block-play matches with the win-loss records from those matches determining the standings.
“The matches are played on a six-wicket court,” tournament director Perry Mattson explained. “Much different than the old backyard game that you see.”
This specific tournament is called the Mini Lobster because of the fact that it’s played on a six-wicket court. The Big Lobster tournament is played using nine wickets. Unfortunately, the court on which that tournament was played, usually in conjunction with the Mini Lobster played at Woodlawn, no longer exists. But, not to fear, the Big Lobster is set to make its triumphant return next fall when a second croquet court is installed on the Woodlawn grounds.
Outside of the court layout, the rules of the game differed slightly from the version one might play recreationally. In these singles matches, each player plays two balls, blue and black versus red and yellow. The goal for players is to get each of their balls through the six wickets in a specific order twice within the 75 minutes allotted for each game.
The strategy comes into play when players earn “continuation” shots. Each player gets one strike of their ball on any given turn unless they pass through a wicket in the desired direction. If they do that, they earn an additional shot, or a continuation shot. If a player strikes a different colored ball than the one they are playing during their turn, they earn two additional shots. They are able to place their ball next to the ball that they hit and take a shot that causes both balls to move. This is called the “croquet” shot. They are then awarded their continuation shot and allowed to strike the original ball that they were playing.
An added wrinkle to this is the “deadness” board. Once a player hits a different colored ball, that ball becomes “dead” to the original ball that struck it. That ball can no longer be used to strike that specific color until the deadness is cleared, which happens when the striker’s ball goes through the next hoop.
These skills were all on display as Helms and Houghton battled it out in the final match of the five-day tournament.
Toward the middle of the match, both men were playing a game of cat and mouse, keeping their own balls well away from the other, so as not to give them an opportunity to make a break. Unfortunately for Houghton, Helms had accrued a bit of an early lead, which forced Houghton to eventually make a play for his next hoop in order to try and even the score.
Once Houghton played his ball towards the middle of the court, Helms was able to put the game out of reach. Using a number of expertly struck split shots, where the two balls placed next to each other during the “croquet” shot are struck in such a way that they end up going in two opposite directions and travel different distances, Helms was able to clear seven wickets in one turn.
Needing nine wickets for the comeback victory, Houghton failed to make even one, as Helms left him in a very difficult position by hiding his balls and making it almost impossible for Houghton to execute the four-ball break.
“I just stayed with the routine,” said Helms. “Executing the three-ball break as opposed to the four-ball break made it easier on me in the end because I didn’t have to worry about picking up his second ball during the break.”
Helms, who won the tournament on his first trip out to Maine, and whose wife, Jane Helms, also competed in the playoffs of a different flight, had nothing but kind words to say about the Mini Lobster Tournament.
“This is one of the best run tournaments I’ve been to,” said Helms after the match. “The lawns are exceptional and, of course, the food is exceptional. And the competition level was high in all four flights. This tournament is known all across the U.S.”
For those looking to hone their skills in time for next year’s Mini Lobster Tournament, the court at Woodlawn Museum in Ellsworth is only open until October, but it will open again in May.