With mallets aforethought

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The genteel sport of croquet has always had a dark heart, and worn it proudly on its well-pressed sleeve. One player in Connecticut used to drive around in a pickup truck with a croquet-association bumper sticker on one side of the trailer hitch and a right-to-bear-arms sticker on the other. So it was probably inevitable that sooner or later somebody would dream up extreme croquet and dedicate it to the enjoyment of "nature and the near-death experience."

Thus, on a cold, rainy morning in the northwestern corner of the state, with the wind whipping in off Old Man McMillan Pond, a group of otherwise reasonable men huddle beneath a stand of hemlocks, contemplating mayhem. "Watch out, there could be shrapnel on this one," a player warns as he hammers his ball out from under a rotten log in a shower of wood chips.

The setting bears no resemblance to the traditional game's neat geometry of wickets laid out on a putting-green lawn. It's a forest, as replete with whimsical obstacles as a miniature golf course but without the concrete gnomes. The equipment is also a little different: the balls are plastic, because wood shatters in icy weather. The wickets are made from solid-zinc lightning rods, also shatter-resistant. Some wickets are exceedingly narrow, just to complicate life, and a few have an upper level, allowing players to earn a bonus shot for going through on the fly. The mallets look like a cross between a nine iron and a sledgehammer: a four-foot-long ash handle with a big, cylindrical head made of high-density plastic, sometimes encased in aluminum, with a wedge on one end for chip shots. Instead of tennis whites, one of the players is wearing quilted hunting camouflage.

At least one thing remains the same. In the traditional game the prevailing emotion is spite, shading toward sadism. Players live for the pure malicious joy of catapulting a rival's ball off the course and into another time zone. "We've tried to keep the strongest elements of the game," Bruce Fitzgerald, a charter member of the Connecticut eXtreme Croquet Society in West Hartford, told Smithsonian contributor Richard Conniff. After a moment, he added: "It features a great deal of abuse. Only a small percentage of it is in fun."

Extreme croquet dates back to the 1920s, when fashionable folks built courses with sand traps and other hazards in California and on Long Island. The Connecticut version got its start at a New Year's Eve party in the 1980s, among a group of backyard croquet players. Sometime after midnight, inspired by, let's say, heightened feelings of oneness with Mother Earth, they decided to play by candlelight in the snow, which they shoveled into moguls. It dawned on them that the conventional game was "totally, completely boring, a baby game," says Bob Warseck, a 6-foot-7-inch executive headhunter.

Like a lot of male rituals, extreme croquet takes the rocky path of conflict en route to camaraderie. It's about heading into the woods in search of a little glory -- the cool shot, the well-placed insult, the rare moment of grace -- with a few friends as witnesses and, OK, as victims too.

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