It’s a familiar scene: grill on, beer in hand, a game underway on the lawn. It’s casual, leisure activities. For some. For others, it’s a proving ground for yard game dominance. And for those — for those athletes who want competition-grade goods — there’s no compromising. You won’t accept the weatherbeaten cornhole board, the chipped bocce ball, the flimsy croquet mallet. Your game demands the best.
Good news, competitors: professional-grade gear is out there. Professional players and organizations have galvanized yard games into standardized sports, with increasing following and coverage. I consulted some of the best players and experts around for recommendations on the best outdoor game gear. The gear isn’t cheap, and it’s sometimes hard to get ahold of — the premium stuff comes from overseas — but if you want the best, it’s worth the investment.
Croquet: Fenwick Elliot Mallet + Dawson Balls
Experts:Michael Orgill + David McCoy, US Croquet Hall of Fame
Getting your hands on the best croquet equipment isn’t always easy. Croquet champions and hall-of-famers Orgill and McCoy recommend the Fenwick Elliot Mallet ($550), though Orgill gets his custom-made by Morford Mallets. Both call the Dawson croquet ball ($805) the best, but it’s elusive in the US and “bloody expensive”, as McCoy told me over the phone while standing court-side before a tournament. McCoy also told me that no one really buys a set of balls unless they own their own court (he does), so this Scottsdale set ($189) — though experts agree that it isn’t as good as the Dawson set — may be better for the casual player.
Bocce: SuperMartel or Perfetta Pro Set
Experts:Natale Scala, Pro Bocce Player + Rome Toccolana Club, Home of Bocce World Series
Bocce balls are available at almost any sporting goods store, but the pros order theirs “straight from Italy,” as pro bocce player Natale Scala told me. The two major brands are Super Martel ($200) and Perfetta ($130), which seem to have a tie for best set. Both companies’ products fit the International and US pro regulations. Perfetta’s set is is more affordable, but Scala prefers Super Martel “because of the design”. He plays for a team under the US Federation of Bocce, a surface league where players bring their own sets. Plans to compete in the World Series of Bocce? You’ll be playing with the Perfetta Pro set, says trustee Mike Ferlo at the Rome Toccolana club, home of this year’s World Series of Bocce. Regardless of brand: if you’re buying a set made of cheap synthetics, don’t expect the balls to roll true, and don’t expect any court cred, either.
Cornhole: ACO-Certified Board + Double-Sided Bag
Expert:Frank Geers, President of the ACO + Gary Lewis, ACO Pro
10 years ago, cornhole was not a sport. Nor could you be a pro. Enter the American Cornhole Organization, which worked to standardize rules, equipment and tournaments. Geers says he’s biased toward the ACO-brand boards ($295) — they’re the only ones used in professional tournaments at this time. But Geers stands by their quality. The boards are hardwood and fold in half for easy transport. As for the bags, Geers recommends the new Player’s Choice line ($25), in which each bag has one slick side and one sticky side to allow the player to strategize. There are other options, though they’re more of the industry’s best-kept secret. Pro player Gary Lewis, ACO pro player, personally practices with boards from a company called Bandit Boards, and one or two pros make their own bags.
Ultimate Frisbee: Discraft Ultra Star
Expert:Mischa Freystaetter, Jacksonville Cannons Pro Team
Ultimate frisbee is hailed by many as one of the fastest-growing — if not the fastest-growing — sports in America. Pro frisbee players collect mountains of frisbees from tournaments and events, but when it comes to practicing and competing, almost every team uses the Discraft Ultra Star. Mischa Freystaetter, Ultimate pro player, is no different. He plays for the Jacksonville Cannons, which are part of the American Ultimate Disc league, “the first and largest professional ultimate league in the world” according to Freystaetter. The Ultra Star ($9), with a diameter of 10.75 inches, has slight lined ribs along the top of the frisbee for extra throwing control. The rim itself is the perfect thickness for forehand throws and its 175-gram weight is enough to slice through the air and work through heavy winds, maintaining a good rotation.
Horseshoes: M&M Special
Expert:Ron Deckard, 2013 World Champion and National Horseshoe Pitchers Association Hall of Fame
Horseshoe pitching has received increasingly more media attention from major outlets like ESPN. It’s a game of strategy and concentration, and of course, great equipment. Ron Deckard uses the M&M Special shoe ($65), produced by a company called Kent. There are about 70 to 80 popular models out there, but the M&M shoe is what Deckard pitches, and has for several years. What makes these shoes special is that they have a feature known as a ringer breaker, a small triangle-shaped notch on the inside curve of the shoe that, according to Dekard, causes it to turn instead of bouncing off the stake.This function can possibly result in more ringers. Others find the ringer breaker cumbersome, but Deckard’s trick is to hold the shoe on the side so the ringer breaker isn’t in his way.