OUT on the putting-green-like court, Hans Peterson is efficiently leaving his competition behind. Every stroke of his mallet leads to the next one. It's a cool, calculated game, often described as chess on grass. This is croquet, but it's unlike anything you or I ever played in our backyards. The terminology is different, and so is the equipment - heavier, longer mallets, larger balls of plastic resin, not wood. The square-topped iron wickets, unlike the barn-door-size backyard variety, are only one-eighth to one-sixteenth of an inch wider than the balls - making this a game of skill, accuracy, and strategy.
The level of play exhibited by Mr. Peterson, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley, is rare among the 50 or so enthusiasts gathered in western Massachusetts for the first National Collegiate Championship of the American Croquet Association. Croquet is still in its infancy as an intercollegiate sport, and organization is of necessity a little loose. Most competitors have played the game for less than a year; some only a week or so.
Some teams have to improvise. Thomas Guthrie Jr., an experienced player from Georgia Tech, didn't want to travel all the way up here by himself, so he recruited fellow Tech student Harris Wilson, taught him the game in a couple of weeks, and they came as a two-man team.
Other schools have had croquet teams for several years now. The Brown University team, started in 1982, fielded eight players here; Williams had 10. In all, 18 schools, mainly from the Northeast, have teams; 14 showed up this day.
Many of the students here picked up the game inadvertently. ``I just saw a notice for the team,'' says Chuleenan Svetvilas of Brown. She has played for two years and finds that women have ``no disadvantage'' at this sport.
``Muscle-builders can beat wimps and wimps can beat muscle-builders, whatever. It's all brain power,'' says Mr. Guthrie, a sophomore with a football build. ``The last tournament I was in I got beaten by an 86-year-old, gray-haired lady!''
Guthrie and his competitors were gathered at the Lenox Club, a Victorian-era social club in the heart of the Berkshire Mountains. An hour to the east, at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., croquet has become something of a passion. The sport caught on largely through the efforts of Richard Young, a retired literature professor and avid croquet partisan; next spring Smith will christen the first regulation college croquet court in the United States and hold its own tournament.
The click of mallet striking ball punctuates this clear, brisk, late-October day. College students dressed in white - slacks, sweats, old denims, just so they're white - zigzag across smooth grassy surfaces, lining up ``splits,'' setting ``rushes,'' taking ``bisques.''
On one court, Albert Joerger of Cornell admonishes a photographer, ``Please, no pictures until I hit,'' then bellows and leaps as his ball clears a wicket. Mr. Joerger recently learned croquet by practicing on an Oriental rug in his fraternity's library. ``I really like this,'' he says. ``It's, like, a thinking sport.''
``The fun thing about croquet is that it combines a certain amount of skill in hitting the ball with a lot of strategy,'' says Steve Sprague, a Cornell graduate who is both referee and coach and frequently consults with the players on strategy and shotmaking. ``It's a social sport, not a cutthroat activity, though some take it extremely seriously.''
This competition is largely the brainchild of Xandra Kayden, the short, energetic woman peering at sheets of paper spread over a white metal patio table. These outline the matches, doubles and singles, pairing such croquet powers as Brown against newcomers like Wellesley.
Ms. Kayden is the glue of this event - the final authority on rules (there are two sets of rules, ``American'' and ``association,'' covering the singles and doubles games), scheduler and timekeeper (the matches last an hour), and founder of the sponsoring association. She and other organizers say a goal of the event is to train players who can then pass along their know-how.
``Because this is a learning experience,'' Kayden says, ``we're pairing the very good players with weaker players from other schools so they can learn. By the end of the weekend they'll have a good sense of the game.''
Hans Peterson of Berkeley has channeled his enthusiasm for the game into a new publication, Croquet Magazine. He and others have come up with a hybrid of backyard and tournament croquet dubbed ``guerrilla croquet.'' The idea is to bring some of the civilizing rules and strategy of the latter to the bumpy terrain of the former.
``We're really trying to spread croquet to the masses,'' says Peterson, with a touch of missionary zeal.
Peterson, the pre-tournament favorite, came in third in the singles. Colby College's Chris Overly took the honors, with Frank Estrada, from San Francisco State, second.