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by Bob Alman
photo by Bobby Willhoite
Posted August 16, 2001

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Six months ago, none of the balls in championship play around the world could boast “officially approved” status – not one. Barlow had a lock on the world market, but worn-out dies and poor factory runs had made the ball temporarily unapprovable. Jaques had a well publicized spat with its Taiwan manufacturing agent and was left without a championship ball of its own – while the agent started peddling its Jaques-financed ball around the globe under his own “Sunshiny” label. In the meantime and without much fanfare, the Dawsons of Australia and Bobby Willhoite of Kentucky submitted their latest products to Alan Pidcock of England, the official tester. The Barlows sent in their newest factory run. The tests say they are all – more or less - good balls. Which one the market will ultimately favor remains to be seen.
The four approved balls now recognized by the World Croquet Federation are the Barlow GT, manufactured in South Africa; the Dawson 2000 International, from Australia; the Sunshiny from Taiwan; and from America, the Willhoite Xtreme.

Alan Pidcock’s tests aim to ensure that all Approved balls are suitable for use in championship play. They are tested for weight, roundness, rebound and milling. Acceptable ranges are set on the variance in diameter and rebound for single balls and for all the balls in the set submitted.

Dawson submitted both 1st and 2nd colors for Approval, and both passed. According to Pidcock, the other makers have so far submitted only 1st colors. Significantly, Barlow has never submitted its striped balls for approval – which has raised suspicions that they could not pass because of irregularities that occur in the process of heat-bonding the pieces together.

Pidcock makes the test measurements with relatively simple apparatus - in which, for example, rebound heights are determined by eye - so he does not claim absolute accuracy. He says he intends the results to “provide a reasonably sound basis for comparison.” Here’s how the balls stack up with each of the tests.

Some balls are more round than others

The test Pidcock uses for roundness is simple: a ball's maximum diameter and minimum diameter are measured and recorded. Here are the results for the four makes of balls: (Note that 1/32 inch = 0.8 mm.)

  • Barlow 0.6 mm
  • Dawson 0.3 mm
  • Sunshiny 0.5 mm
  • Willhoite 0.2(5) mm

There was little variation between different balls in any of the sets, but tournament directors who despise more than anything changing hoop settings in the middle of a tournament because some balls stick in them will note that the Willhoite and Dawson balls clearly lead the stats in the roundness tests.

Bobby Willhoite is especially fond of his color-matched mallets, ideal for doubles play. But his big investment is in the new Willhoite Xtreme ball.
I reached Bobby Willhoite at his Kentucky factory to ask about his winning stat in the roundness category. He wasn’t aware of the test statistics but was noticeably pleased – and not at all surprised – with the results. Naturally, he declined to give away his trade secret. He would only compare “curing the new balls” with what happens if you let an apple or a peach sit around awhile: “They lose moisture, and they shrink. There is moisture in the new balls, just like in an apple. They have to be cured for a couple of weeks, and if you don’t cure them right, they’re not going to turn out round.”

How heavy is a pound?

The tests showed that all four brands were accurate in weight - all within 5 g of 1 pound (454 g).

Follow the bouncing ball

Heights of rebound from a steel plate are measured on six points of each ball: four nodes in the milling pattern (one of which bears the logo) and two poles that have a checkerboard pattern. Pidcock reports the average rebound heights (with temperatures at the time of the test, just for the scientific record) as:

  • Barlow - 90.7 cm (19 deg C)
  • Dawson 1st colors - 91.5 cm (19 deg C)
  • Dawson 2nd colors - 92.4 cm (25 deg C)
  • Sunshiny 84 cm (22 deg C)
  • Willhoite 87.5 cm (20 deg C)

    These test results are somewhat at odds with anecdotal reports of comparison of Barlows with the new Sunshiny and Willhoite balls by American pros. The results suggest that Sunshiny and Willhoite are not as lively as Barlow – directly contradicting recent observations of Americans who have highly praised the “crisp action” of the Sunshiny and the liveliness of the Willhoite. Perhaps the players who are saying that the Sunshiny behaves like the old Jacques composition ball are really commenting on the sound the ball makes when struck with a mallet – it is noticeably sharper and higher than a struck Barlow.

    Pidcock reports that the rebound height typically varies somewhat over the six points for a single ball. The ranges of variation were:

  • Barlow 3 cm
  • Dawson 1 cm
  • Sunshiny 7 cm
  • Willhoite 2 cm

    Once again, on rebound, Dawson and Willhoite emerge the winners in the consistency of rebound statistics.

    How does the rebound test translate into distance ratios on croquet strokes? There are no formal tests on this critical factor, but Alan Pidcock provides below some anecdotal comparisons between the Dawson and the Barlow that overall favors the Dawson.

    There is no single definitive test for milling

    Barlow, Dawson and Sunshiny patterns were regular. Willhoite, though complying with the test criterion (which stipulates that the upstands must be wider than grooves), had some uneven spacing that would presumably be rectified in a production model of the ball. (Willhoite says his production run will be complete by late September.)

    There are many and daunting variables associated with milling – cutting the grooves into the balls that allow them to adhere properly and consistently in croquet strokes. The hardness of the plastic and the depth and width of the groove are interacting factors that influence many characteristics of play: If the plastic is relatively soft, the milling will have to be deeper If the milling is deeper, the ball will be lighter. But with deep milling, the ball won’t bounce as high as it would with shallow milling. Worse, the patterns of deeply milled balls might “mesh” in play to produce unexpected pull in croquet shots and other weird effects.

    There is no simple and easy recipe for “correct” milling. The Dawsons have worked long and hard on this challenge, and early reports from players suggest that the Australians have excelled in this respect.

    How the balls behave in play

    According to Pidcock, “In the UK, our attention has focused principally on the Barlow and Dawson balls, since both are easily available here; as yet, there is no UK supplier for Sunshiny and…the Willhoite ball is not yet in production. The test results show the Barlow GT and Dawson 2000 International to be very similar in average rebound, with the Dawson having more consistent rebound over the six test points of the ball, possibly because it has somewhat shallower milling.

    “To determine how the test results relate to playing characteristics, two highly ranked players - Colin Irwin and David Maugham - were asked to perform identical shots…alternately with the tested sets of Barlow and Dawson balls so that comparative distance measurements could be made. As expected from the similarity in the rebound heights, the balls were very similar in play, with no reliable difference being detected in straight half-rolls, split rolls or straight rushes. The Dawson forward ball traveled relatively further (10 - 15%) in long drives or stop-shots and gave slightly greater separation in a straight full-rolls. The players had no difficulty in making adjustments to compensate for the small differences encountered.

    “No difference in 'pull' was detected in either long split shots or in short 'peeling' shots. Overall, the Dawson ball was considered to allow a greater range of shots, and this - together with its high standard of production - led to it being preferred overall.

    ”A less structured assessment of the Sunshiny set indicated that the lower rebound height translates to a noticeably less lively ball in play.”

    And thus concludes Alan Pidcock’s official assessment of the four balls. What about the manufacturers themselves? Croquet World has devoted much recent coverage to the dispute between Jaques and its Taiwan agent which has resulting in the worldwide marketing of the Jaques-inspired “Sunshiny.” Barlow is well known throughout the world. Let’s take a closer look at Willhoite and the Dawsons.

    How the Willhoite ball emerged from nowhere

    He is little known in the croquet world, but Bobby Willhoite has been making croquet balls at his Georgetown, Kentucky, factory for 30 years. The first one was for the Kentucky Croquet Association, long dominated by the legendary tobacco farmer Archie Burchfield, who astonished Palm Beachers in the early eighties when he drove down to Palm Beach in his pickup truck and overalls and beat just about every croquet player in sight.

    Willhoite played croquet with Archie and the Kentucky gang. His diversified manufacturing company, Willhoite Tools, was accustomed to taking on unusual challenges – everything from helicopter parts to clocks and computer checking equipment. But it wasn’t until recently that he decided to make a championship croquet ball.

    He acknowledges that it’s not a good time to produce a ball in America that can compete in price with other balls made in cheaper labor markets. He knows his balls won’t sell if they’re a lot more expensive than others. He has no distributor and he thinks he might sell the ball himself, directly to the consumer, to help make the ball competitive in price.

    He knows that breaking into a limited market with a ball that is still virtually unknown and untested in play is going to be a chore. But he also believes in his product. “They’ll never wear out,” he told me. “Just watch and see, you can’t damage them.”

    Buyers can judge that for themselves as early as late September, when Willhoite says his production run will be shippable. Promotional efforts will include the Golf Croquet World Championship at the National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach in February. Willhoite is donating 12 sets of balls as the event’s official ball sponsor. If the balls emerge unscathed from a week of hard-hitting play at the hands of the Egyptians, they will have passed an impressive durability test.

    Willhoite, at 69, is also launching a line of mallets and other equipment. His favorite idea (pictured above) is a color-coordinated set of mallets for doubles play he thinks he’ll retail for about $500.00. For his three croquet-playing grandchildren and others who have to force their shots on slow lawns, he’s developing a super-lively ball – one he claims will rebound 58 inches from a height of 60 inches. He’s calling it a “Golf Croquet Ball.”

    The Dawsons – reaping rewards from years of development

    Bryan and June Dawson have also worked for many years improving the balls they sell – along with mallets and other equipment – through their Australian Croquet Company in South Australia. The company was started decades ago by Bill Smith, a leading South Australia player who made balls and mallets as a sideline hobby. The Dawsons bought the business from Smith in the mid-eighties and produced two generatons of Dawson Balls – the Mark I and the Mark II.

    Although the Mark II was technically an improvement over the Mark I, many players thought its extreme softness took all the fun out of the rush. Nevertheless, the early Dawsons fared well. But by the nineties, the Jaques composition ball and an improved Barlow were favored in most countries. By the end of the century, Dawson ball sales were mostly limited to their native Australia.

    It had taken Bryan Dawson almost two years of full-time work to develop his first ball. Making the dies and tooling up is an expensive process. With mallet sales supporting the company, June and Bryan Dawson finally decided a couple of years ago to commit themselves to developing another ball – a superior ball. They did it, but their timing might be off. Rave reviews from testers and players will help their cause, but it might not be enough - because another ball got there first.

    The Barlow ball still owns the market

    Other balls may win the test numbers, but the fact is that since the demise of the Jaques composition ball four years ago, Barlow has staked out the major share of the market in most croquet-playing countries. Clubs and associations have to have a very good reason to replace their ball stocks with new models; that’s expensive. And especially in America, Barlow has a strong edge with its molded-in stripes for double-banking; no other manufacturer has gone to the trouble of building in permanent stripes. Whether Americans will tolerate having to refresh painted-on stripes to adopt a ball that tests marginally better than the Barlow remains to be seen.

    The Dawson is virtually unknown on American lawns. All the current buzz is about the Sunshiny, competitively priced at $170 a set, and the only American championship ball in production – the Willhoite. It could be years before the official tests combine with on-court experience to produce a marketplace consensus on what the best ball actually is.

    Four balls are now up for trial on croquet lawns. The jury will be out for some time to come.

    [Note: The editor thanks Alan Pidcock and John Riches for background data. Details of the tests and suppliers' addresses are given on the official Website of the English Croquet Association.]

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