My college classmate Jeff called from California. He was coming to Florida with his wife Diana to compete in a croquet tournament in Venice. We offered to provide a pull-out and relatively clean sheets at Casa Craig for a few nights. When I hung up, I thought “A croquet tournament?” Croquet was something we used to do on a slow Sunday afternoon when the kids had been inside, getting squirrelly. I would fetch the moldy, water-stained box of croquet implements from off a shelf in the garage. When the box came open, cockroaches the size of Volkswagens would clamber out from the tangle of hoops, stakes, balls and mallets. Rules of engagement were made up on the fly. Direction of ball travel was arguable, clockwise people holding out against counterclockwise people. Before we started, the field of play had to be sanitized by removing goodies left in the back yard by Molly and Bingo, our dogs. On one occasion this resembled an Easter egg hunt since they had eaten an entire box of multi-colored Crayolas the day before. The fun part of play was holding down your ball with your foot right up against the opponent’s ball and then whacking your ball, sending the opponent across the backyard to land under the air conditioning unit.
On the Saturday we went to see Jeff compete, there was no whacking being done, no poops being removed. The Sarasota County Croquet Club was part of a county sports complex. Frisbee golf competitors and baseball players practiced nearby as a crowd of white clad, suburban types went about their business on a manicured greensward. A bevy of BMWs, Audis, Mercedes and similarly upscale motoring plunder was in the car lot. The event was the “USCA Florida Golf Croquet Regional Tournament.” Jeff said there were at least 50 competitors. His home club logo, “Sonoma Croquet Club,” stitched on his white Polo shirt, Jeff anchored the west coast representation.
Six croquet courts were laid out at the SCCC over a green expanse of Bermuda grass, about two thirds of a football field. Players were scattered everywhere, bending, stooping, lining up hits, chatting in clubby clumps. At one side was the SCCC club house, buzzing quietly as folks went in and out. A homemade lunch buffet and beer drew my attention.
The “Golf” Croquet business puzzled me. I saw no putters or sand wedges on the upright racks that held the mallets. The mallets were three-feet long with three-pound block heads that looked like something a medieval serf would use to clobber a knight from off his horse. Jeff said there were two types of croquet, Association (or International) and Golf. With the former, the player has two balls in play at a time, with the latter, one ball. Turns out that Golf Croquet is a newbie upstart. Old-school Association players are in a snit. Zoning laws and cross words have not prevented the infiltration of Golf Croquet into dignified Association Croquet neighborhoods.
Croquet is not a spectator sport. No stands, no beer vendors. A scattering of spouses stood or sat in folding chairs and looked upon the field of play, each watching quietly as their player attempted to thrash someone else’s player by being the first to get through seven wickets (seven points). No fist bumps or shouts of encouragement. Other than hearing Jeff’s wife Diana emitting an “Oh no!” or an “Oh my!” I was clueless as to whether Jeff was the thrasher or the thrashee in the moment. He played thoughtfully, pondering his strokes. Jeff is a very organized guy, right down to his sock drawer. He started out as an engineer in college, as did I. He continued in engineering; I did not. I got on the Dean’s List, but not the one you might think of. Sophomore year, the Dean suggested I move my major to some area where numbers were not key to success, like finger painting.
The player who got through a wicket first, earning a point, attached a little colored clip, like you use on potato chip bags, to the wicket. We watched a lanky guy in a ball cap getting industriously hammered by an efficient, no-nonsense lady who was applying clip after clip to the wickets. He reversed his ball cap for rally mojo but in the end went down like a heavyweight with a glass jaw. This being a sport introduced by the Brits, who invented civility, play ended with hugs and handshakes. I thought of rugby, also a Brit sport, where opponents assault each other, pad-less, producing gushers of blood and broken noses, then shake hands when the mayhem is done, clap shoulders and go off to drink beer and get smashed together.
I pondered if NFL end zone dances would make croquet more attractive to modern folk as a spectator sport. I pictured a rhythm-challenged portfolio owner, doing hip thrusts and booty shakes over his winning wicket. The world is not ready for this. The world did take a gander at croquet as an Olympic sport in 1900 in Paris. The French teams crushed everyone. It was Olympic croquet’s swan song.
I saw that there was no winner’s trophy displayed on a stand outside the clubhouse, no three-foot tall sculpted rendition of a rampant mallet, done in bronze, suitable to be admired on an end table. I figured that a handshake and a “Well done” offered by the Prexy of the SCCC sufficed for the winner. I asked Jeff how he did. “OK, reasonably well,” he said, shrugged his shoulders. As my Life’s Editor and I drove away from the parking lot, I spotted a Miata with a “Coexist” bumper sticker and a Prius with a “Proud Democrat” bumper sticker.
My people had infiltrated.