Rose Cannon couldn't help notice them when she was driving on Sun City Boulevard.
But then again, they would be hard to miss.
In the distance -- just outside the Purrysburg Fitness Center at Sun City Hilton Head -- Cannon often would see men and women uniformly dressed in all white, from sun hats down to their sneakers. Some days there would be a half dozen people, on other days there would be more, moving around the manicured lawn with their heads down and mallets in hand. The residents were playing croquet.
"I was curious," Cannon said. "I said to myself, 'Croquet has been around for hundreds of years so there must be something good about it for it to last that long.'<2009>"
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That was nearly 12 years ago, shortly after she and her husband, Dick, moved to Bluffton by way of suburban Baltimore. Today, Cannon is an instructor of the Sun City Croquet Club, playing or teaching a few times a week.
Residents Dulcie and Don Knoll founded the club in 1997 after relocating from Port Royal Plantation and requesting tharoquet lawn be constructed. The sport, which is traced back to the British Isles during the mid-19th century, has been a hit as more than 100 residents currently are club members. It is the second-largest club in the seven-state southeast region of the United States Croquet Association, according to Avril Nicholson, the region's vice president.
At various times on any given day, residents gather on one of two lawns to practice or play matches. The Sun City group belongs to the Coastal Croquet Club Council, which sponsors games and tournaments among the local clubs of Port Royal Plantation, Wexford Plantation, Palmetto Bluff and Dataw Island.
Players' abilities are measured by a handicap, each person beginning as a 20-handicapper.
"It starts off to be just plain fun," Cannon said. "When you learn more about it, it's a mental challenge that the average person can meet."
On a recent Monday morning, despite drizzle and cool weather, nine men and women gathered for a beginners' class and were guided by Marilyn Long and a team of instructors. It didn't take long for the newbies to understand that club croquet is not the same as your backyard variety, which is played by millions on uneven lawns and usually with lightweight equipment.
For starters, club croquet is played with six wickets and one stake, rather than the backyard version of nine wickets and two stakes.
"It's much more competitive. It's more detailed," said Cannon, breaking out her 106-page rule book. "It's the same basic game, which is getting through the wickets. But we use referees and are assigned handicaps."
People who are skilled at billiards, golf and chess tend to pick up the game quickly because croquet has all three elements, Cannon said.
Dressing in white is about respecting the sport's tradition, she added. The club voted down a proposal that would have allowed players to wear khaki.
Joanne Foster, an assistant instructor, said she's held on to her golf clubs, but has made croquet her outdoor sport of choice.
"It's a level playing field," Foster said. "Women can play as well as men. It doesn't take a lot of muscle to play. It's really a mind game."