Croquet, Anyone? And We Do Mean Anyone

A Pastime With a Posh Pedigree Develops Mass Appeal
by Peter Goldstein - Wall Street Journal

Article Date : September 04, 1998

By Peter Goldstein Special to The Wall Street Journal Europe
Genval, Belgium

RODOLPHE DOURTHE OF FRANCE is methodically trouncing an English opponent in the finals of the second annual Belgian Croquet Open played on a summer Sunday in this verdant Brussels suburb. The players, like everyone else scattered around the pristine 32-by-25.6-meter crew-cut pitch, are dressed in gleaming white. This is six-wicket croquet, after all, the civil pastime of sophisticates and royalty.

Or is it? Mr. Dourthe, a rising star on the European tournament circuit, works for French do-it-yourself chain Castorama SA. Watching from the sidelines is Jonathan Lamb, the No. 1 seed in Belgium, whose day job involves personnel and security at the European Commission. Next to Mr. Lamb is Peter Payne, a player from Geneva who works for a bank.

These aren't people with coats of arms above the fireplace or signet rings in their safety-deposit boxes. They're commoners, mostly middle class, and they're fueling a croquet revival.

"Until recently, croquet had a real image problem - most people considered it a child's game played by old Aunt Agatha and some upper-crust types," says Mr. Lamb, who practices about 10 hours a week on the Genval greens. Now the finer points of croquet are coming out. People realize it's a mental game, like a cross between chess and snooker.

Internet Boost

Enthusiasts say the Internet and demographics in the industrial countries are helping transform croquet's profile from an aristocratic garden-party diversion to a full-fledged fad, and possibly a serious competitive sport. The World Wide Web has offered a free outlet for publicizing the game and demystifying its rules. Cyberminded baby boomers, on the lookout for a sport that's easy on the musculature but challenging for the mind, are flocking to the sport.

In Britain, spiritual home to modern croquet, the venerable Croquet Association at the Hurlingham Club in southwestern London is enjoying the greatest membership run of its 101-year history. Secretary Paul Campion says the number of individual members is up about 15% in the past 18 months, while the number of affiliated clubs is at 130 after eight additions this year.

Mr. Campion contends effective publicity has made all the difference. "It has shown people what a good, competitive and tactical game it is, not just a an old person's hobby," he says. Thanks in part to a two-year-old Web site, Mr. Campion says, the association has been able to attract younger people to the game.

Courts, Tournaments Spread

The business world, meanwhile, has latched on to croquet as a democratic way to blow off steam at company picnics and retreats. Unlike, say, tennis or golf, novices enjoy it as much as experts, while men have no physical advantage over women. The Florida-based Croquet Foundation of America, a nonprofit group, last year organized the first annual U.S. corporate croquet national championships, for which U.S. companies sponsor employees to compete.

"We are formalizing a program for corporate groups who want to try croquet as a team-building activity," says Anne Frost Robinson, president of Croquet Canada, that country's premier association. In the meantime, she is busy setting up a day on the greens for the marketing and advertising department of Warner-Lambert Co.

On the European continent, Belgium is typical of the game's budding success. The Belgian Croquet Federation was founded a year and a half ago, and since then four local chapters in large Belgian cities have been established. This year's Open at Genval attracted players from eight European countries, even though it's a minor whistle stop on the blossoming croquet tour.

Chris Hudson, secretary of the London-based World Croquet Federation, bears witness to the game's international ascension in the past 10 years. The WCF kicked off in 1986 with 12 national bodies as members, and the total has climbed to 20, with more on the way. "I'd estimate the number of regular players has at least doubled or even tripled in the past 10 years," says Mr. Hudson. "It is certainly spreading across Europe. One more European country every year is setting up an association."

The Web's role in all this can't be overstated. Supporters around the globe manage sites offering detailed information about tournaments, rules of play, rankings and equipment suppliers. The San Francisco Croquet Club, an acknowledged trailblazer in Internet promotion of the game, runs Croquet World Online magazine, a slick cyberspace talking shop for those who yearn to wax eloquent about the arcana of mastering the split shot and playing the in-ball-out-ball strategy.

Bob Alman, president of the U.S. Croquet Association for Northern California and editor of Croquet World Online claims Internet sites are attracting scores of 20- to 40-year-olds who otherwise might never have discovered the joys of the wicket wars.

By Mr. Alman's count, hundreds of new courts have been built and new tournaments organized over the past decade. "Ten years ago, you could count on your fingers the major four- to six-day tournaments. Now, there are dozens each year, more than 100. There are about 3,000 people who engage in tournament play regularly."

Suppliers Thrive

On-line supporters devote plenty of site room to explanations of croquet's rules, which run 62 pages in the handbook governing Association Croquet, the global standard that harks from England.

The essence of the game is two players trying to knock two balls each through a series of six hoops - or wickets - then finish off by hitting a central peg. While this may sound simple, interplay among the four balls adds the snooker and chess elements. Each time a striker's ball hits, or roquets, any of the other three balls, the player is entitled to two more thwacks. The first is the croquet, for which the striker's ball is placed in contact with the one it just hit, and the player swings again. The second is a free shot on the first ball. With a keen eye and cunning placement, a player can wend around the course while relegating the opponent's balls to croquet Siberia. Association matches average about two hours.

The Internet also has been a boon for croquet equipment suppliers, until now mostly cottage industries confined to local niche markets. Oakley Woods Croquet of Brighton, Ontario, founded 20 years ago as a custom woodworking shop, got into the mallet business on a minor scale a few years ago and decided to launch a promotional Web site in 1997. Owner Don Oakley says the company has experienced "explosive growth" in demand for croquet products thanks to on-line orders. "Our shop has since dropped all other work to concentrate efforts on the production and development of more croquet equipment. Sales were up fivefold in a single year," he says.

The Money Side

John Hobbs, a retired computer-services marketer in East Sussex, England, says he started tinkering with mallet design in 1984 and devised a custom handle that proved popular among croquet, acquaintances. Mr. Hobbs now churns out about 100 mallets a year for clients on both sides of the Atlantic. "There has been growth in popularity in quite a lot of countries. It's become a very nice way to supplement my retirement income," he says.

Despite the hype, croquet remains primarily an amateur pursuit. Mr. Campion of the Hurlingham Club's Croquet Association contends his organization's members and affiliated clubs prefer that the game remain unsullied by cash. Indeed, cash purses are scarce at European events.

In the past, croquet organizers have been able to attract money from Jaguar, Rolex, and other luxury-goods companies for modest underwriting efforts, but a lack of media attention has capped sponsor interest. That's why both the WCF and the USCA are actively pushing golf croquet, an abridged version of the game that fits better into TV sports time slots. Unlike Association play, a contestant doesn't earn extra swings when a struck ball hits another. The players simply try to move their balls through the hoops ahead of their competitors'. Matches usually last about a half hour.

"This game is an opportunity crying out for a sponsor," says WCF's Mr. Hudson. "Golf croquet has tremendous appeal for TV, and we've had independent producers assess it. Of course, it's so much easier for stations to broadcast football and other sports with a sure following, but I could certainly imagine televised croquet soon."

Meanwhile, back at Genval, Mr. Dourthe grabs a quick cigarette on a courtside bench and watches his opponent launch a ball clear across the pitch to secure a place in front of his next hoop. Mr. Dourthe already is well- positioned near the peg, and he racks up a 14-12 victory in a cool 84 minutes.

After the game, the Frenchman and the Englishman shake hands, then head off for a friendly cocktail before the awards ceremony. First prize is a meter-long box of Belgian beers.

(Published in The Wall Street Journal Europe, Friday-Saturday, September 4-5, 1998.)

Peter Goldstein