Standing on a regulation croquet lawnis a lot more intimidating than whackingtoy balls around the backyard as wedid when we were children.
The field seems to stretch to infinity,and is close-cropped like a puttinggreen. The handcrafted mallets costclose to $300 each, and they have tosteer 2 balls through 6 narrow wicketstwice in no more than 105 minutes. Ashot clock allots just 45 seconds perstroke, and the players are allowed toblast their opponents' 1-pound ballinto the next zip code.
SPORT ON THE MOVE
Welcome to the competitive world ofbig-time croquet. It's a sport on themove. As many as 90 million Americansplay the game on a variety of competitivelevels. The true measure of a reallyluxurious new resort, these days, is if itdevotes a regulation 105-foot-long, 84-foot-wide patch of sculptured Bermudagreen grass to croquet.
No one is quite sure where the gameoriginated. Some experts theorize croquetwas a French shepherds' game ofthe 1300s. Back then, the shepherdswould hit balls with their "crooks" or"croques." In the 1800s, there was agame in Ireland called "crooky."
Europe's Victorians fell in love withthe game, because the ladies could playwith the men. Tolstoy pictured AnnaKarenina trysting with Vronski at a croquetmatch, and Alice in Wonderlandswung a flamingo by its legs as a mallet,hitting a curled-up hedgehog as aball. Its importance in the British sportingscene is evident in the full name ofWimbledon: the All-England Croquetand Tennis Club. Croquet was an official Olympic sport in 1900 and 1904.
Hollywood helped bring croquet toAmerica. Studio mogul Daryl Zanuckbuilt his own Beverly Hills croquet lawnand invited celebrities like Harpo Marx,Sam Goldwyn, Humphrey Bogart, andErrol Flynn to play, often making bigmoney bets with the millionaire starshe thought he could beat. When heguessed wrong, he wasn't above pickingup his ball and hurling it at thehead of his opponent.
AMERICAN RESORTS AND CLUBS
Meadowood Napa Valley (800-458-8080; www.meadowood.com) has beena northern California croquet resortsince 1986. Visitors must dress entirely inwhite to stride its lawn. Jerry Stark, amaster with the mallet, ranked in theworld's top 25 and teaches the sport.Colorful brochures promote a champagneand croquet package, offeringguests an hour of bubbly tasting and anhour of croquet training. Dothe croquet first. The game is hardenough to master without a buzz.
The US Croquet Association has closeto 5000 members—a pretty well-heeledbunch, with an average annual incomein excess of $150,000. But you don't haveto be a blueblood to play the sport. Thenational champion a few seasons agowas a working-class tobacco farmer fromStamping Ground, Ky.
Tournament-quality equipment cancost upwards of $4000 per player. Thevery best mallets are handcrafted byJohn Jacques & Son, Ltd, traditionalmakers of fine sporting goods since1795. During WWII, the firm was permittedto send sporting goods to AlliedPOWs held by the Nazis, including croquetballs and mallets.
Top players carry these precious malletsin felt-lined leather cases, with theshaft and mallet head in 2 pieces, to beassembled on game days. Encounter aplayer with this gear and you're probablyup against an opponent who plots futuremoves like Boris Spassky, banks his shotslike Minnesota Fats, and hits with thepower of Barry Bonds. Best of luck.