Taking a mallet to croquet

September 28, 1996|By Rob Kasper

LIKE A LOT OF guys, I think of myself as an athlete -- an athlete who has not yet found his sport. After years of playing baseball, basketball, football, tennis, golf, swimming and Ping-Pong, and not exactly setting the sporting world on fire, I figured it was time to try croquet.

I took a croquet lesson from Jerry Stark, one of the top croquet players in the United States and the croquet pro at Meadowood, a resort hotel in California's Napa Valley. I was out in California attending a convention, and taking the lesson gave me an excuse to leave one of the convention's meetings. When I slipped out to play croquet, I felt like a kid skipping school.

Another reason I tried croquet was that I had the shoes. A few years ago I bought a pair of white bucks. There aren't many occasions that call for wearing white bucks, but a croquet match, where properly dressed players are clad in white, is one of them.

My mental image of what a professional croquet player looked like was that he would be a trim little man, with freshly clipped hair and a very British demeanor. Stark was exactly the opposite. At 6-foot-1, 260 pounds, he looked like a long-haired football lineman. Instead of being very British, his open, friendly style was very Kansas City. That is where he had grown up, playing

tight end on the Park Hill high school football team that finished second in the state.

After high school, Stark worked in an auto plant in Kansas City, assembling Caprices and Bonnevilles. He got married. One weekend he found himself at a party on a farm "where everybody was drinking beer and playing croquet." Stark joined the crowd, and liked playing the game. It was "backyard croquet," the version of the game in which players hit balls through nine wickets, each wicket being wide enough to almost accommodate two balls, side to side.

Later, he would graduate to the British or international version of the game, in which the grass is as smooth as that found on a golf course's putting green. There are only six narrow wickets, just barely wide enough to let one ball slip though.

After playing a lot of competitive, backyard croquet in Kansas City, Stark took a two week trip to Phoenix. He played the six-wicket, international version of the game "for 10 to 12 hours a day." He loved it.

Recently divorced and laid off at the auto factory, he decided to seek his fortune in the West, with a croquet mallet. He began winning tournaments in Arizona and California. He became a certified instructor and eventually landed at Meadowood, a tony resort tucked into the gorgeous hills of California's wine country. There, Stark gives croquet lessons and runs an annual croquet tournament.

When I met him, Stark had recently returned from England, where he and the five other members of the U.S. Croquet Team had battled teams from England, Australia and New Zealand for the world championship.

The game of croquet that Stark introduced me to was much different from the version I had seen played in back yards. The strategy was more complicated than slamming your opponent's ball to kingdom come. The wooden mallets were hand-made. The wickets were very narrow.

He told me to face the ball when I swing. The idea was to swing the mallet between my legs, moving the mallet like a pendulum, not swinging it like a golf club.

He told me to "stalk" the croquet ball. This meant that I was supposed to stand some distance from my ball, position the center of my body, the ball, and my target in a straight line. Then, keeping my eye on the target, I was supposed to smoothly stride toward my ball and strike it, sending it speeding to the target.

That was the theory of stalking. I stalked and stalked and stalked, but hit very few straight shots. My croquet game seemed beyond professional help.

Stark was, however, able to teach me how to execute a "jump shot." This shot, he said, was one the pros use to avoid knocking an opponent's ball through a wicket. He showed me how to hit my ball with a short downward stroke, sending it in the air through the wicket and "jumping" over the opponent's ball.

It took me about five attempts, but I finally got my ball to "jump" through the narrow wicket. I felt very proud. Stark told me that a few months earlier he had taught the same shot to former Vice President Dan Quayle, who had ventured onto the croquet court after giving a speech to a group of business executives meeting at the resort. I didn't ask how many tries it had taken Quayle to execute the jump shot. I didn't want to know if former vice presidents could beat me at croquet.

When I got back to Baltimore, I made a few inquiries into the local croquet scene. I learned that there is a group of about 15 players, led by C. Ryland Moore and his wife, Marilouise, who play the six-wicket game on Thursdays and Saturdays at the croquet court at Blakehurst retirement community on Joppa Road in Towson.

And I heard that just last week in Chestertown, Joan McCown won a tournament put on by Quaker Neck Croquet Club, a group of 32 folks who play a nine-wicket course laid out in the back yard of Arthur T. Keefe's house. And I received word that next weekend, the second annual Maryland State Croquet Championships are to be played at the Easton Club.

I thought of putting on my white bucks and entering the Easton tournament. But then I recalled Jerry Stark's summation of the game of croquet: "It is part chess, because you make your moves and you react to your opponent's moves. It is part billiards, because you have to play angles. It is part golf, because you have to determine your lie. And it is part war, because when I play you I am trying to beat you as badly as I can."

I've never been very good at chess, billiards, golf or war. So maybe I'll just keep the white bucks in the closet.

Pub Date: 9/28/96

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