A `Great Gatsby' kind of game

DESPITE the relentless nagging of doctors and other health nuts, recent polls show that only about half the populace regularly engages in jogging or any of the other recreational sports that are allegedly good for us. The reasons are obvious. Jogging, for instance, is so ... well, you know what is is. Sweaty is what it is. Hard work, too. Same for tennis, golf, and the rest.

But consider croquet. No sweat, no exertion, and among the many other vastly superior features of the grand old game, the opportunity to mingle socially with the monied classes. It's no wonder croquet is sweeping the country. Or should be, anyway.

Ah, but you're laughing. You think croquet is a wimp's game. You're wrong.

Actually, say those who play it best, croquet is a game requiring much concentration, strategy, and certainly at least a little more skill than it takes to run around working up a sweat, or to do many of those other things that pass for athletic exercise.

Muscle - that's about all that the other things require. But croquet players, as one of their leading lights declares with the self-confidence of all truly great athletes, ``are genuinely clever and intellectually able.''

That assessment comes from Damon Bidencope, croquet pro - yes, they have them now, too - at a fashionable northern California country club. The players, as Bidencope notes, are of all ages, since youthful stamina is not needed by mallet swingers.

Oldsters compete as equals with the young; frail young women - frail young men, too - compete as equals with muscular young men and women. That, of course, is not the way it is on the tennis court, or in many other places, for that matter.

The costumes are nifty, too.

Remember tennis before chartreuse balls and garish shirts with the makers' names scrawled all over them? That's the way it is in proper croquet circles. White shoes, white trousers, white skirts, white shorts, plain white shirts and blouses, those splendid white sweaters with the red, white, and blue trim - the whole works, with nary a plebeian sweat shirt to disturb aesthetic sensibilities.

Noisy, rude spectators and noisy, rude players have come to even such previously serene pursuits as cricket. Be assured, however, that tranquillity reigns on the croquet court.

``Were it not for the birds and an occasional round of oh-so-discreet applause, there would have been no sound but that of wood-against-wood as mallet struck ball,'' as a reporter wrote of a championship match during last fall's international singles play in California.

``A civilized, Great Gatsby kind of sport,'' the president of Denver's Croquet Club called it as he looked over the scene of play. Indeed. It could very well have been one of those fabulous parties thrown by the mysterious Mr. Jay Gatsby on West Egg: the clothes, the broad green lawns, the brightly striped tents nearby where players and spectators could refresh themselves.

Imagine Gatsby and his guests jogging. Imagine joggers pausing during their sweaty rounds to sip champagne and nibble on caviar.

Students of history are of course aware that the number of croquet players, on fashionable Long Island and everywhere else, once outnumbered tennis players by 1,000 to 1. The game had arrived via England, where it was taken up by lords, ladies, and others of social merit in the 1850s. By 1870, says The New Encyclopedia of Sports, croquet had become a fixture in this country:

``No yard in the acreage of the elite was considered complete without a croquet set for use by the residents and their guests. Public parks which had not featured any form of sports for play on the grass began to blossom with croquet sets, put there by civic leaders.''

Who's to say it won't happen again?

Sales of croquet sets have doubled over the past five years. Dozens of private and public courts have been opened. Several regional newsletters and a national croquet magazine have been launched. Eighteen colleges and universities have formed croquet teams. The US Croquet Association, which had but five member clubs a decade ago, now has more than 250. Corporations are putting up prize money for such events as the recent $15,000 Domaine Mumm Croquet Classic.

So get on the bandwagon, old sport.

Dick Meister, a former newspaper and broadcast reporter and editor, is a decorous San Francisco author.

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