Maybe you've played a good-natured lawn game on a summer evening, using weather-beaten mallets to knock battered balls around a course of nine wickets in the thick grass and bumpy turf of your backyard. You may have even called it croquet. It was only by the loosest of definitions. At the elite level croquet is a cutthroat affair, played across the globe with high-end equipment on manicured lawns of exacting standards. And if you're thinking it's a lazy game for the out-of-shape, ponder the results of the recent world championship played at the National Croquet Center (NCC) in West Palm Beach, Florida, in April. The finals went on for 11 1/2 hours. (They play by points, not rounds, like you do.)
That would have been a lot of Gin & Tonics (what seems to be the game's unofficial drink), had the tilt been held by the members of the Algonquin Round Table. That famously boozy set (including Harpo Marx, pictured) became enthusiasts of the game back in the 1920s. But croquet actually traces its lineage to the 17th-century variations and organized under that name in 1856. The All-England Club at Wimbledon already had croquet before it hosted Grand Slam tennis. Part of croquet's charm is that it can be taken as seriously (in all white uniforms) or as casually (with cigar and cocktail in hand) as the players (of all ages) choose. Younger players dominate because of the stamina involved, but the latest champion is 62 years old.
The NCC is on the all-white-dress-code level of seriousness. Its 19 number courts are laser-level and maintained exactly like golf greens (except for one layout that is kept shaggy in deference to the nine-wicket backyard game). Oversized, varnished mallets can be borrowed, but dedicated players spend as much $600 for their own at the pro shop. Competition courses have only six hoops, but they are so unforgivingly narrow as to have almost no tolerance for misguided shots. The Center (one of the 200 or so private croquet clubs in America) offers free lessons to nonmembers. And while the game seems maddeningly difficult at first, you'll soon find yourself able to pass balls through hoops. Niceties of the game—like long distance shots, using back spin to jump a ball that blocks a wicket and devious strategy (generally hitting your opponent to keep him from scoring)—take longer.
Inside NCC's mansion-like clubhouse is some respite from the treachery of competition. It houses dining rooms, ballrooms, the Croquet Museum and Hall of Fame (Harpo is a charter member) and, yes, a bar with that promised Gin & Tonic.