Welcome to the Brutal, Take-No-Prisoners World of Competitive Croquet
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?
In 1875, the All-England Croquet Club set aside a patch of ground at its Wimbledon playing grounds for an amusing new game called lawn tennis. A hundred and some years later, tennis has eclipsed croquet as the club's marquee sport, but it's worth noting that until very recently Wimbledon was still officially known as the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club.
Croquet has its roots in a game called "paille maille," played by French peasants in medieval times. From there it jumped across the channel to Ireland, where it came to be called "crooky." By the late 1800s, the game, now called croquet, was perhaps the most widely played sport in Victorian England, offering one of the few opportunities for men and women to compete against each other. To be sure, there had always been the appeal of a little sub-rosa romance in the game's possibilities; Tolstoy used a croquet game as the setting for Anna Karenina's trysting with the handsome Vronski.
In the United States the game found followers in high places. Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) was known to enjoy a game and President Rutherford B. Hayes, an early enthusiast, allocated the grand sum of $6 in government funds to purchase "good quality" croquet balls. His congressional critics were quick to claim it "an outrageous expense" and demanded that the profligate president repay the country out of his own pocket. Political budget battles aside, the golden age of American croquet dawned in the 1920s, when the game was taken up by the bon vivants and wits now remembered as the Algonquin Round Table, which included drama critic Alexander Woolcott, playwright George S. Kaufman and Harpo Marx.
The game became an obsession for all, but for no one as much as Woolcott. Visitors to his island summer home in Vermont were denied use of the launch to return to the mainland until he'd beaten them in a game. Described by writer Moss Hart as "impossible in victory, irascible in defeat," a galled Woolcott once threw a croquet ball at mystery writer Rex Stout, missing him by inches. Woolcott was not the only player whose passion ran rampant on the court. Newspaper publisher Herbert Bayard Swope built an elaborate and enormous course (complete with sand traps!) on his Long Island waterfront estate. Swope, a very aggressive player, once ordered his partner to knock another ball off the court. When the partner began to protest, Swope bellowed, "Don't argue with me, damn it! Just do as I say!" The partner shrugged and sent the ball in the general direction of the ocean. "Good shot," Swope said. And then Swope shouted, "Good God! That was my ball!"
Harpo Marx took the game so seriously that he turned a spare bedroom into a climate-controlled storage facility for his assemblage of mallets. (Harkening back to the game's romantic possibilities, Harpo liked to invite showgirls to his apartment to view his collection.) When the Round Tablers went west to work in the movies, the game traveled with them and was soon taken up by the film colony's elite. Darryl F. Zanuck, who ran 20th Century Fox with an iron hand, quickly became known as "the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang" for his style of play. Zanuck, Hart once said, had "the true croquet spirit. He trusts no one but himself, never concedes--no matter how far behind he may be--and he hates his opponents with an all-enduring hate."
Producer Samuel Goldwyn installed two courses at his Beverly Hills estate, where celebrities such as Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks and Howard Hughes enjoyed the game. Goldwyn, who hated to lose, once pleaded with actor George Sanders not to leave him with a difficult shot. "If you don't do it, George, I'll buy you a Rolls-Royce," Goldwyn said. Sanders paused, thought about it and said, "I already have one," and sent Goldwyn's ball flying. The actor Gig Young was once on the Goldwyn courts and faced with a particularly difficult match shot when a mild earthquake struck, causing the players to momentarily desert the course. When they returned, Young's ball had rolled into a new and perfect position. "An act of God," Young said, and made the shot.
The war years put a damper on croquet court frivolity; when peacetime returned, the high-profile croquet game faded even as the backyard game bloomed in popularity. Discount stores sold inexpensive sets in huge numbers, and no barbecue get-together was complete without a quick tour through the wickets. There were those, however, to whom casual croquet was a barbarous degradation of a fine tradition. The flame of the true game was kept burning at a few lonely outposts, primarily the exclusive country clubs that dot New York's Hamptons and Florida's Gold Coast.
The revival of American tournament croquet took form slowly; in 1966, the Westhampton Mallet Club traveled to the venerable Hurlingham Croquet Club in England, where 1,000 members crowded its seven courts. (Clearly croquet had retained its cachet among the English.) Brashly challenging their hosts to a game or two, the Americans were summarily and severely thumped in open competition. The loss stung, and when disparaging remarks were made about the "primitive" form of croquet played in America, pride rose in the national gorge; shortly thereafter the United States Croquet Association was formed.
With the USCA on the scene, the backyard game and the sport came to a definitive parting of the ways. Association croquet required specialized equipment and facilities. The short-handled mallet typical of backyard croquet sets proved inadequate, requiring as it did a hunched, unnatural shooting position and often being cheaply made with a pronounced tendency to warp. Long-handled mallets, such as those supplied since 1795 to British players by the firm of John Jaques & Son Ltd., offered superior shot making and ball control. Plus, they were handsomely made by craftsmen out of lignum vitae or boxwood, both exceptionally durable woods. (Jaques remains the premier name in croquet equipment; many players would no more appear on the court with a non-Jaques mallet than they would in blue jeans.)
One of the most important items on the USCA agenda, however, was to codify the basic principles of play for the American game. Set into stone were previously slippery issues such as the dimensions of the regulation court, wicket size and proper attire. Henceforth, a USCA-sanctioned game would be played on a court 105 feet in length and 84 feet wide, with round-iron wickets five-eighths of an inch in diameter, 12 inches in height and not less than 3 11/16th inches nor more than four inches wide on the inside dimension. Balls would be made of compressed cork with a plastic overlay to a precise diameter of 3 5/8 inches and a weight of 16 ounces (plus or minus three-fourths of an ounce). And players would wear all white apparel, please, unless otherwise approved by the USCA event chairman, which was and is damned unlikely.
That done, they moved on to the rules. In the simplest terms possible, a match in six wicket croquet is played in either a singles or doubles format. A player or team hits or "strikes" either the red and yellow balls or the blue and black. (There are no other combinations or colors in six wicket--no green or brown, for example, and, for that matter, no pink or fuchsia, either.) Blue hits first, followed by red, then black, then yellow.
The balls are played through the number one wicket, then the number two and so on. Upon reaching and scoring the number six wicket the direction of play is reversed, until the center stake is played and the ball becomes "staked out." Which sounds a lot easier than it is; considering that the wickets are, after all, only about 1/16th of an inch wider on each side than the ball--the thickness of a dime--and that it's said the sun can cause the black ball to swell enough to make it stick in the wicket, it seems an achievement that a player ever completes a round.
Be that as it may, a player is limited to one shot per turn unless he or she scores a wicket or 'roquets' (strikes) another ball. Scoring a wicket is rewarded with a "continuation" stroke, a "roquet" with two strokes--a "croquet" and a "continuation" stroke. Once you've roqueted a ball you're "dead" on it and you can't strike it again until you've "cleaned" yourself by scoring another wicket. Each wicket played is worth two points, as is the stake, for a total of 26 points. The first team or player to reach 26 points wins the match. A player can, and will, combine the opening stroke with roquet, croquet and continuation shots, thereby scoring numerous points during a single turn.
While it may sound simple enough, it most assuredly is not. For in croquet the most important part of the game is the players' grasp of strategy and the ability to think a dozen shots in advance. The race through the wickets becomes an exercise in Euclidean geometry played with live ammunition when you consider every possible ramification of each possible shot. Being dead on one or more balls can dramatically alter the game. "When you're three-ball dead," Zanuck once ruefully observed, "you're just a useless bum."
The terrible-tempered Mr. Bang knows whereof he spoke: A lack of careful planning can leave a player out in the cold. Solid defense, something which can be easily overlooked, can be the most critical of tactical considerations. Present the opposition with a good "leave" and it may be your undoing, something that translates into the fact that it's occasionally more important to harass, annoy and obstruct your opponent than it is to score points.
The best players quickly develop both nerves of steel and something else: "It helps to have a sadistic streak," one observer remarked of match play. "When somebody misses a shot or makes a mistake, that's the time to jump in and crush them." The manner in which all this is best appreciated, however, is in the playing. An abstract understanding of the importance of good defense is one thing; it's quite another to stand there and watch your ball get knocked the length of the court by an opponent who looks up from the shot with an unseemly grin on his face.
One of the best ways to begin playing is to take the three-day course offered by the USCA at its West Palm Beach headquarters. For a modest fee, you'll receive 18 hours of on-court instruction such as that given by Mike Weimerskirch, who is patiently guiding his charges through the third and final day of their schooling. By this time they're familiar with the basics and eager to gain a mastery of the more advanced techniques--the peel, cut-rush, cannon, bisque, take-off and pass-roll shots--and Weimerskirch is delicately attempting to redirect their enthusiasm back towards fundamentals. "You've got to learn to crawl before you can walk," the instructor says in a later conversation. "The important part of the game isn't so much the hitting. It's course management, a thorough understanding of the rules, thinking ahead. We try to emphasize the total game. You can be a great striker and get your lunch handed to you by a 12-year-old kid who just plain outthinks you."
Weimerskirch's remark about the 12-year-old kid isn't just hyperbole; at the 1994 National Championships in Newport, Rhode Island, little Jaques Fournier of Phoenix outshot seasoned competitors three times his age and finished an astonishing fourth in singles.
The media-friendly angle of the little boy excelling at the old rich man's game is exactly the kind of thing the USCA needs to propel itself into the national sports limelight, a place it apparently wants to go. Although there is, at the moment, no professional croquet circuit per se (most players spend their own money to compete and the typical award for a victory at a major tournament is usually a wristwatch or a magnum of wine), the USCA is actively pursuing corporate underwriting. ESPN televised highlights of the 1994 and 1995 championships and will do so again this year.
"Tennis started modestly," says Dean Reiniecke, a former USCA official. "So did golf. It's not that difficult to imagine the stands filled with thousands of spectators for a championship croquet match."
That day may come, but right now down on the USCA court, some of the students are getting a little restless. While a good percentage of the group attentively follows the practice game Weimerskirch is directing, a small dissident contingent expresses itself. "Oh, the hell with this," one elegantly turned out woman says, sotto voce, to her companion. "The whole reason I'm doing this is so I can kick Arnie's butt the next time we play. I'm interested in a little payback." Weimerskirch laughs when he's told of the exchange. "That's the croquet spirit all right," he says. "Killers, that's what they are. Natural-born Palm Beach killers."