Playing with Mallets
Welcome to the Brutal, Take-No-Prisoners World of Competitive Croquet
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96
The good life is being lived on the grounds of the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club. HRH Prince Charles, known to stop by when in the neighborhood, is not in attendance today, but the parking lot in the south Florida town of West Palm Beach is still jammed with sleek, expensive cars, the championship-level fairways are deluged with golfers and, across the immaculately attended grounds, the sounds of clinking glassware and cocktail-hour conversations drift from the
restricted-by-dress code clubhouse. It's just another perfect day in paradise, the sky a protean blue, the grass a lush and verdant green, and in the distance the gentle 'thwock' of wood hitting wood is an auditory compliment of the most idyllic sort, a sound that brings back warm memories of playful summer days. It may take a moment for the visitor to realize that what he's hearing is actually the sound of would-be killers in training.
For there on a patch of manicured lawn, surrounded by a dozen or so eager students, teaching pro Mike Weimerskirch is hard at work in the instruction of perhaps the most intensely fought, innately ferocious recreational pursuit ever invented: croquet.
The Gatsby and Daisy, Champagne-set image the game projects is deceptive, for underneath that surface lurks an arena of brutal, no-quarter-asked-or-given competition. For this is most assuredly not the backyard knock-around croquet many of us grew up playing, but croquet as played by the strict rules and numerous regulations of the United States Croquet Association, which, as it happens, keeps its headquarters at the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club.
The game Weimerskirch is teaching to an evenly mixed group of men and women is referred to as American, or six wicket, croquet (as opposed to nine wicket, international rules, Kentucky and golf croquet, all variations on a theme). Six wicket differs from backyard croquet in a number of ways, paramount of which is the playing surface. Whereas in backyard croquet tree roots and other obstacles are part of the game, the USCA version requires a vast rectangle of dead-level and baby-bottom-smooth grass. (Imagine a giant pool table laid flat on the ground.)
Tournament croquet, as the USCA game is sometimes called, is also played with long-handled mallets (no stooping over when you shoot) against a ticking clock (a match is usually limited to an hour and 45 minutes, with a 45-second shot clock). Points are awarded for each wicket scored, up to a maximum of 26 points. Tournament croquet is regulation-intensive (the USCA rule book is a densely worded, single-spaced booklet of some 80 pages). As comparatively demanding and difficult as USCA croquet may seem, it is also in the midst of something of a renaissance: More than 350 croquet clubs are now registered with the USCA, up from just five in 1977.
Those noting the game's growth have also observed that many of its freshly minted devotees are, in a word, rich. While not all are millionaires (recent national champions include a Kentucky tobacco farmer and a former restaurant cook from Boston), many are. For serious players a private court is de riguer; a USCA-quality specimen can cost upwards of $40,000 to build and about $4,000 a year to maintain. Then, too, off-the-rack equipment often leaves something to be desired; hand-crafted mallets starting around $450 or custom-made mallets going much higher than that are no less a requirement. Small wonder, then, that the list of ranked players contains a disproportionate number of corporate CEOs, retired tycoons and scions of old money. The USCA pegs its typical member as someone with a yearly income upwards of $125,000.
But then again it may be that the game attracts its demographics because it's intensely competitive, completely and utterly unforgiving of even the slightest lapse in concentration, and ruthless in execution--all of which is very much like the world of big business. As former USCA president and self-described "Johnny Appleseed of croquet" Jack R. Osborn once observed, "The game combines physical hand-eye coordination with tactical strategy, almost warfare-like planning. That's what attracts these very bright people. Let's face it, the business world is war. Croquet is a perfect extension of that." Given its parallels to corporate machinations, the real question concerning croquet's growing appeal among the Fortune 500 set isn't, Why now? The question is, Why did it take so long?
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