In pro croquet, it's a hard-knock life

Reid Fleming is gnawing on his thumb, his narrowed eyes tracking every flicker of activity on the lush, green lawn. Other than the occasional squawk of a seabird flying over Nantucket's Jetties Beach, the only audible sound is the sharp chip of croquet mallets connecting with croquet balls.

Mr. Fleming squats low to check the angle of his shot. He likes what he sees, and with a pendulum swing of his mallet, he sends the wooden ball smartly across the crew-cut grass to the wicket. It looks good.

But it's not.

Fleming's ball wedges in the narrow white "U" of the tight wicket, only a dime's width larger than the croquet ball. "Reid's not going to be happy with that shot," whispers Fleming's wife, Mary Catherine Deibel, from her folding chair on the sidelines.

Welcome to the world of professional croquet.

While still as genteel and civil as when it made its transatlantic journey from the 19th-century grand estates of England, the modern game of croquet has morphed into a competitive sport – a mashup of high-stakes billiards, the Masters golf tournament, and a nerve-wracking chess match played in impeccable white clothes. Croquet's glam ambiance of splendor in the grass masks the reality that the sport is far from a laid-back backyard pastime played at summer barbecues.

Indeed, tension is running so high at this tournament on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, that Mr. Fleming, a seven-time national men's singles champion on the United States Croquet Association (USCA) circuit, flubbed what should have been a fairly easy shot.

Tournament director Bob Kroeger of Milford, N.H., describes croquet as a "one-hour race around a course of six wickets, where you get one point for each wicket scored," he says. "The game appeals to risk managers, people who like to think strategically about risk-reward trade-offs."

Low barriers to entry

The USCA, with headquarters in Palm Beach, Fla., reports more than 3,000 registered members, one-third of whom are considered serious players – attending clinics, practicing regularly, and competing in dozens of USCA-sanctioned tournaments across the country. USCA members play the American six-wicket croquet game, versus the nine-wicket European game. Players stress that it's easy for a newcomer to enter the sport – all they have to do is sign up for a few clinics in their hometown. A new player starts with a handicap of 20, and has to whittle it down to 15 before qualifying to compete in an official USCA tournament. For most players, getting to the competitive range takes only a few seasons.

Today's competitors clearly take the risk/reward equation very seriously. Decked out in full battle regalia – crisp white shoes, socks, shirts, shorts (and a few skirts, too), they line up precisely, each player laser-beaming on one of the six wickets on the course. There's very little conversation. Even the spectators speak in respectful whispers.

Suddenly, there is a shout from the course. Director Kroeger perks up his ears at the disturbance, an apparent accidental hit. "Let's see what happens now," he says. One of the referees asks a player, "Were you intending to hit the ball with your last swing? Or was it a practice swing, perchance?" The player, a little sheepish, owns up immediately to missing his stroke and accepts the one-stroke penalty. "Very sportsmanlike behavior," Mr. Kroeger nods approvingly. "That's the kind of integrity we like to see in croquet."

The hissy fits of summer lawns

But it doesn't always go that way. Evidently croquet players can be a bumptious lot, prone to hurling obscenities, mallets, and their hats, on occasion. It's a behavior that can get even the most promising competitor blackballed from the tournament circuit. In competitive croquet, each player must call his or her own fouls, and unsportsmanlike deportment can earn you a reputation as a "bad sport" that will cycle around the croquet circuit faster than most players can move around the six-wicket course. Those who fudge the rules or exhibit what Kroeger describes as "ill-mannered behavior" get a swift boot out of the tournament.

"As a tournament director I can't let one player's bad behavior ruin an otherwise delightful event," Kroeger says, his attention never wavering from the play.

A hit-and-miss affair

By the final four or five minutes of the one-hour match, almost every shot seems to require an impartial observer. With just seconds left in the match, there's another tense conference on the course. The two players stand 12 inches away from each other, hovering over their balls. The referee rules: no hit. No score for Rilice Lefton of Philadelphia. When the gun sounds, she walks off the course with obvious disappointment, twitching the pleats on her tennis skirt. She's lost her match, but is optimistic. It's only the first day of the tournament, and it's only the first tournament of the season. "I'll be redhot by the end of August," she says.

Meanwhile, Fleming wins his match, though he's not entirely happy with his performance. "I played a boring game," he laments. His winnings? An original antique map of Nantucket, dated 1855.

It may be as intense as the Masters, but it doesn't pay quite as well.

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