Every September, my wife, Maggie, and I drive down to Lincoln, Nebraska, to play in an annual croquet invitational called the Sticky Wicket. (Fingers crossed, this year will mark the 17th edition.) It’s a fantastic event: a weekend of fun for family and friends on Ross and Barb’s weirdo vegetable farm. They provide the best watermelon I’ve ever tasted, a good keg of beer, and, most important, a clay croquet court that plays impeccably.
Sometimes, in my dreams, I see red and orange and green wooden balls rolling through each wicket on that court. I’m always competitive: I usually make the final six. But Maggie is a great player, with a smooth, even mallet stroke. She won the whole thing in 2013.
This summer, I plan on buying my own croquet set and practicing with some friendly matches. Croquet emerged from mid-19th-century England, evolving from an Irish game called “crooky.” (I imagine the stuffy Victorians probably just upscaled the name in the same way some of us goof on Target by pronouncing it “Tarzhay.”)
The game became a bit of a craze in the late 1800s. Lewis Carroll featured a croquet match as a major plot device in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Louisa May Alcott did the same in Little Women. And President Rutherford B. Hayes ran into trouble for spending $16 of government money on a White House croquet set.
Later, tennis gained favor as the preferred Anglo-American lawn game. But croquet maintains an association with the upper crust. Wimbledon—the summer tennis tournament with the all-white dress code—takes place every June and July at what was originally, in 1868, The All England Croquet Club. (Its official name remains the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.)
Croquet can be something of an upper-crust game here in Minnesota, too. I called Dr. Rick Sheely, the president of the City of Lakes Croquet Club, to get some tips on improving my swing and to find the best local courts.
A few years ago, the only true “association court” in the Twin Cities—in Centennial Lakes Park—turned into a putt-putt green. Sheely has neither forgotten nor forgiven this atrocity. Now, the state’s only great court resides at Madden’s on Gull Lake. Sheely, who lives in Minnetonka, says he has occasionally made the five-hour round trip just to play.
“You get to the point where you won’t play on just any surface,” Sheely says. For years, he maintained his own private croquet lawns. An official US Croquet Association court must be 35 yards by 28 yards. According to Sheely, the grass should be kept short enough—that is, a quarter inch or less—to allow a player to consistently hit another ball that’s 10 yards away.
The game rewards players with a strategic mind, a deft touch, and a bit of a ruthless streak. When I ask the good doctor for a tip on my swing, Sheely says the best players hit from between their legs. I refuse to do that. As Winona Ryder proved in Heathers, style matters on the croquet court: You look best stroking your mallet like a golfer and coordinating your outfit to the color of your ball.
Finally, equipment: The best croquet sets can be found at CroquetAmerica.com, and Sheely says crazy players will spend up to $500 on custom mallets. But when I tell him that we play with garage sale sets on Ross and Barb’s court in Lincoln, he replies that’s just fine.
“Invite me,” he said. “I’ll come. I retired from my family medical practice to play croquet—I’m obsessed with it.”
Counterpoint: Bocce Is the Game of Summer
croquette? Way too English and stuffy: the sporting equivalent of a barrister wig. Especially when the alternative is something continental and cool like the Italian bocce or the French pétanque. These types of lawn bowling don’t require arranging wickets with a measuring tape or picking through a bunch of wobbly mallets to find one good one. You don’t need as much green space either. The game can be adapted to any sort-of-level patch of dirt or grass in your backyard or a park. And the best part? You always have a hand free for whatever your vice may be—Gauloises or a glass of barbera.