Splendor in the grass

For summertime fun, croquet’s okay.

Canadian Business, July 8, 2002   

I’m sitting on a wooden bench, watching the first official tournament of the 2002 croquet season unfold on the close-cropped grass of two perfectly flat, perfectly manicured lawns in north Toronto. About a dozen players are dressed entirely in white, as the rules dictate they must. The atmosphere is reserved, quiet and respectfully polite — what an Anglican church service would be like if Anglicans had church outdoors. I’m merely an observer here. These people are experts at a very difficult game. They compete internationally. I don’t even know how to hold the mallet correctly.


My few attempts at croquet have been haphazard, poorly organized affairs played on lumpy backyard lawns with toy equipment. They were to real croquet what Pong is to the Wimbledon tennis finals. Everything about tournament croquet is different from what little I know of the game. The one-pound balls are bigger and heavier than the lightweight spheres that come with a backyard Canadian Tire set. So are the mallets. The rules — more correctly called “the laws” — fill a book. The six wickets (also known as “hoops”) offer just one-sixteenth of an inch clearance around the balls, unlike the roomier bent-wire versions, which allow more latitude for toy-size balls. Watching the other players, I’m beginning to see that real croquet demands skills I demonstrably lack.


Thankfully, Jane Beharriell, secretary of Croquet Canada, is kind enough to explain exactly what those skills are. “Croquet is a mix of golf, billiards and chess,” says Beharriell, who is competing in today’s tournament. “There’s shot-making, like in the short game of golf.” The only golf I’ve ever played is the miniature kind. “There’s also strategy and tactics,” she continues. “Billiards, because you have to know what the court will look like after you’ve made your shot, and chess because you have to be thinking five plays ahead.” Well, I have been soundly beaten at billiards a few times over the years. And chess — well, isn’t that just a fancy version of checkers with more ornate pieces?


The ostensible object of croquet is for each player to get two balls (either red and yellow, or blue and black) through a set of six wickets in the correct order — twice. Merely getting them through is not enough, though. Imagine a rectangle with wickets at each of its four corners, two more wickets facing each other in the center, and a stick in between them. You start at the lower left corner, put your balls through the four corner wickets first, then the two center ones. Then you start at the top left corner and repeat the sequence. Finally, hit the peg in the center of the court, and you’re done. Every time you put a ball through a hoop, you get a point.


You can play until one player has completed that sequence, for a total of 26 points, or set a predetermined time limit and see who finishes with the most points. As with billiards, when you put a ball through a hoop, you get another stroke. Roquet, or strike, another player’s ball by hitting it with your own, and you get two more strokes. A standard six-wicket game takes a seasoned player about 90 minutes.


But the real object of croquet, says Beharriell, is to utterly destroy your opponent — in the kindest possible way, of course. After all, croquet is a game of politesse, and croquet players are expected to be civilized and well-mannered. Media titan Kenneth Lord Thomson of Fleet enjoys the occasional game of croquet when he’s visiting friends in England. He and his wife, Marilyn, play at a country home near the hamlet of Haddenham. “We go there three or four times a year,” says Thomson, “and my friend has a croquet set that he sets up in the garden.” Thomson delights in the social aspect of the play. “It’s a very spirited, good-natured game. It’s just pure, unadulterated fun.” Croquet is usually followed by lunch under the boughs of a huge fruit tree, and maybe even a swim. “It’s a very English sort of Sunday,” says Thomson.


David Frum, neo-con author and erstwhile speechwriter for President George W. Bush, enjoys the odd game of nine-wicket croquet — the backyard kind — with his wife, author Danielle Crittenden, but only under very special conditions: “on the dry, burnt Prince Edward County grass at the Worthington place, east of Toronto, in the summer,” says Frum. “The emphasis in those games is on competitive ferocity rather than skill.” Frum says he hopes to beat his father-in-law, journalist Peter Worthington, just once. That has yet to happen. “For him,” says Frum, “it’s a way of life.”


The croquet that Frum and Worthington play goes back centuries. Histories vary, but one suggests that in the 1600s the English played a game with wickets, mallets and balls that they called “pall mall.” Around the same time, the French played a similar game called “croquet” — an archaic version of the word “crochet,” or hook, believed to be so named because the wickets resembled hooks. Modern croquet became very popular in England in the mid-nineteenth century — not least because the game allowed women to participate. Ten years later, it landed in North America and developed into three strains: six-wicket Association croquet, which is most common in Canada, and a different, six-wicket version — less forgiving, some say — that’s overseen by the United States Croquet Association (USCA). The third variant, the nine-wicket backyard game for which nobody wants to take credit, is actually the one most people learn first. “That’s how I did it,” says Beharriell. “I knew the backyard game, went to the US game, then kind of stagnated. To get better, I had to try the Association game, which allows you to try stuff, screw up and keep trying.”


There’s no zealot like a convert, and Bob Imhoff, past president of the Vancouver Croquet Club, is evangelical about the game. “If everybody lived according to the rules of croquet,” he insists, “the world would be a better place.” Players are determined to demolish their opponents, but they’re also expected to observe the rules and police themselves.


While waiting for their turns, players can smoke, drink, eat and chat, adding a social element to the proceedings. Another bonus: nobody sweats. Croquet is less strenuous than tennis, and it requires less walking than golf. “You really play golf by yourself, even if you’re with other people,” says Croquet Canada president Ken Shipley. “But you can’t knock another player’s ball away from the hole or block their shot. You can in croquet.”


Shipley has just come off the court at the Toronto tournament for lunch. Most players are having beer or mineral water. There are no gin-and-tonics in evidence — although I feel there should be. Despite the fact that I’m surrounded by some serious enthusiasts, the dozen competitors at today’s tournament represent about 10% of the ranked players in the country. In fact, there are only about 140 players in Canada who are proficient enough to be ranked. By comparison, there are 7,000 tournament-ranked players in Australia.


While there may be comparatively few high-caliber Canadian players, at least Canada produces some of the best equipment in the world. Ten years ago, a friend asked carpenter Don Oakley if he could replace a set of croquet equipment that had been left out in the rain a few times too many. He obliged, and Oakley Woods was born. Initially, the company’s products were strictly made-to-order. Then Oakley started putting together standard sets containing mallets, balls, wickets and hoops for four, six or eight players.


Over the past three years, sales have grown by 75% every year, says Oakley. “That’s partly because two of our main competitors went out of business,” he says. “But most of that growth was through word-of-mouth and through our Web site.” Today, the company’s products, which are still made in Brighton, Ont., are recommended by the USCA, among others. A set containing everything for a four-player backyard game costs about $390; an eight-person tournament edition runs $2,900. For real aficionados, Oakley also custom-makes mallets from exotic woods and space-age polycarbonate substrates.


Of course, even one of Oakley’s square-head Taper-lock eXtreme mallets is useless when wielded by somebody who can’t play — like me. My greatest challenge is getting used to the basic croquet shot: swinging the mallet straight ahead between your feet, instead of using the sideways golf-putt stance. Given the larger, heavier mallet heads — about the size and shape of a brick — the shot makes it easier to aim, if you can aim reliably. Croquet’s rudiments may take a few minutes to learn, but mastering them requires a lifetime. And that may explain why anyone who’s ever seen me play is deafeningly silent about my technique. First, derisive laughter would be out of place on a croquet court. And second, do you really want to mock somebody holding a big wooden hammer?