A STICKY WICKET HOW TO BRING THE SUPERANNUATED GAME OF CROQUET INTO THE GO-GO WORLD OF MODERN SPORTS

December 08, 1997

Let's not be fooled by the croquet Establishment's irrelevant
stats about fewest sports injuries, most fresh air and
record-busting lemonade concession profits. Let's finally face
it: The Sport of Plutocrats has rolled deep into the weeds. Is
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. right? Is today's go-go American
lifestyle too frenetic for such leisurely 19th-century pastimes?
No, blaming obsolescence is old hat. Croquet's problems are
animal, vegetable and mineral. Herewith our analysis--and our Rx
for the long-term survival of the noble old game.

--End player overcrowding. A Dutch sportscaster hit it on the
sweet spot last season during the U.S. All-Stars' lawnstorming
tour of Europe: "You can't tell the players without a census!"
The Andorran team included all of Andorra. Extreme example?
Sure, but it's high time the game's wide-open player admissions
policy was tightened. "As long as you've got tots, golden labs
and expectant moms on croquet teams," sighs one grizzled
ball-knocker, "you can kiss the big time goodbye!"

--Standardize the playing area. Laissez-faire lawn dimensions
aren't fair. This year's Florida Masters event rambled over most
of Broward County, while the Empire State Open Invitational was
run in a backyard in Levittown. Lawn conditions vary, too.
Easterners historically flounder on buffalo-grass Montana lawns;
Utahans are masters of the hardpan surface but humiliated in the
bluegrass of Kentucky. Such disparities render most croquet
stats and records meaningless.

--Either loosen the rules or issue flashlights. Fact:
Seventy-seven percent of all 1997 championship games ran past
dusk. Fact: Seven out of 10 Americans are afraid of the dark.
Result: spectator evaporation and sloppy play. Alas, a
mossbacked equipment committee stonewalls the flashlight idea
every year. But the rules committee, now peppered with Young
Turks under 75, may be ready at last to consider wider hoops and
other changes aimed at speeding up the game's pace. In England
experiments with a 30-second limit on stroke consideration have
produced a record-smashing 12-minute match. Notwithstanding the
naysayers' quibbles--"Yes, but the experiment involved
chimpanzees!"--it's worth studying.

--Launch a croquet youth movement. When the 1996 croquet Rookie
of the Year has to be placed in a home in '97, a call to youth
is overdue. In fact, without an infusion of fresh
blood--now!--croquet could vanish from the earth by 2012. (Don't
scoff: It happened to Indian clubs.) Nor, frankly, can the game
compete with shuffleboard and lawn bowling while dependent on a
narrow sponsorship base of dentifrices and laxatives. Storm
signal: The Adult Diaper Council just canceled its $20 million
croquet tie-in to go with the "younger, hipper" World Cribbage
Federation.

--Shorten the regular season. The 1998 croquet season began
before the '97 session ended. The sport has taken Lawn of Famer
Rex Tidwell Jr.'s boyish '61 cry of "Let's play four!" and
multiplied it by two and added weekly Sunday nanoheaders, taxing
player stamina and fan interest alike. Take this year's
27-games-in-one-weekend World Trophy finale. Yes, records
toppled--but so did nine of the 12 finalists.

--Enforce the f------ no-profanity rule. "It's what separates
croquet from golf!" cry proponents of profanity. "It breaks the
tension!" Balderdash! Croquet's hypocritical wink at the
fusillades of foul language that punctuate virtually every
stroke in every game must end. "On the one hand they talk
decorum, manners, breeding," fumes an ex-croquet TV analyst. "On
the other, one Seniors finalist tells another, 'You touch my
f------ ball and I'm going to take your g------ colostomy bag
and stuff it down your m------------ throat!'"

--Beware the radical element. Jane Fonda uses Larry King Live to
announce her plan for "rescuing croquet from suburbia," which
includes domed, artificial-turf, indoor, downtown facilities;
men and women segregated in separate-but-equal leagues; players
penalized for carrying martinis and cigars. But she misses the
point. Croquet without suburbia--i.e., a croquet shorn of its
Updikean mind games; its adder-strikes of viciousness made
mellow in the dappled shade of tall elms; its scents of grass,
hydrangeas, gin, shellac, Marlboros, weed-killer, dogs,
fertilizer, old tennis shoes and fear--would be a mockery of
what none other than Alexis de Tocqueville, after witnessing his
first game on a Cincinnati greensward more than a century and a
half ago, felicitously dubbed "polo for pedestrians."

Bruce McCall is a New York-based writer and illustrator.

COLOR PHOTO: CINDY CHARLES [Woman playing croquet]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)