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Smithsonian Magazine - Oct 2003
Extreme croquet "features a great deal of abuse. Only a small percentage of it is in fun." says co-founder Bruce Fitzgerald
With Mallets Aforethought
Dropping all pretense of civility, extreme croquet enthusiasts
take the game to new depths ~ BY DICK CONNIFF
THE GENTEEL SPORT OF CROQUET has always had a dark heart, and worn it proudly on its well-pressed sleeve. A player here in Connecticut used to drive around in a pickup truck with a croquet-association bumper sticker on one sideof 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 north-western 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 mayem. "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 (though some of the players could pass).
|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 though on the fly.
All images Gale Zucker
The mallets look like a cross between a nine iron and a sledge hammer: 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 towards sadism. Players live for the pure malicious joy of catapaulting a rival's ball off the course and into another time zone. "We've carried that over," says Bruce Fitzgerald, a charter member of the Connecticut eXtreme Croquet Society in West Hartford. "We've tried to keep the strongest elements of the game." After a moment, he adds "It features a great deal of abuse. Only a small percentage of it is in fun."
Winter is the best time to play because of the greater potential for misery, but the Connecticut group gets together on Sundays year-round. Right now, everybody's trying to get past the turn post at one end of the course. The shot involves lofting the ball up over a three-foot-high moss covered rock and slowly down to the next wicket. A veteran player advises a novice that if the ball fails to clear the hump and rolls back into the post, "We throw your weighted body into the lake." More often, though, it's the ball that ends up in the lake, first skipping over the hump a little too eagerly, ricocheting off a mossy ridge, slowing down through some scrubby vegetation (just enough to make the hapless player yell "Stop! Stop! Siddown-siddown-siddown"), then rolling over the edge, plonk, to induce a final heartfelt lament of self-loathing: "Oh, you moron!"
If all this is not enough to make a player feel like a troll, there is the extended repertoire of shots: full golf swing for getting across large stretches of open space. Seated sideways baseball swing for clearing the ball out from under the low branches of a spruce tree. Kneeling pool cue shot for close-wicket work. Careening the ball off any available obstacle is standard procedure. "I needed more curve in that root," a player protests.
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 dawnwed on them that the conventional game they had always played was "totally, completely boring, a baby game," says Bob Warseck, a 6-foot-7-inch executive headhunter. "We go walking in the woods all the time," he adds. "Why not bring the stuff with us?"
Warseck is not merely one of the Connecticut game's founding fathers, but also its archfiend. In the third game of today's match, he gets to the finish post first, as is often the case, and becomes "poison," which means that he can turn back and hunt down his fellow players. Victory also earns him six points, and since, by the arcane rules of the game, he has minus-five points from the previous round, Warseck lifts both arms and cries, "Back in the plus column! Time to dish out the negativos."
"Anything that's good for Bob is bad for society," mutters Bruce Fitzgerald. Warseck protests his innocence, but evil beams demoniacally from both eyes.
"It doesn't really make him a bad person," another player suggests. To which Fitzgerald glumly adds: "It just acknowledges that he is a bad person."
Warseck takes a long, improbable shot over a ridge and down across some gnarled roots. The ball rolls slowly, agonizingly, poisonously, toward Fitzgerald's ball, hesitates, and then delivers a decorous kiss of death.
"Oh, this is so much fun," says Warseck. It is, by and large, guy fun, and middle-aged guys at that. Women play only on special occasions. (It's a wonder they show up even then: for her efforts, Warseck's wife has entered the game's vocabulary, "Diana's Mallet" now being the term for sheparding the ball through the wicket like a puppy rather than giving it a good clean whack. The Official Rules define the shot as "illegal, immoral, and without honor.")
Even the guys sometimes worry that, to the outsider, their sport might seem a little childish — for instance, when Bob Warseck is being targeted by his kid brother, John. "Come on, take him to Chicago!" the other players yell, seeking vengence. Even John's 7-year-old son, tagging along for the day, pipes up, "Daddy, wipe him out!" John misses, Bob gloats and the two of them leap fiercly into the downward spiral of sibling hostilities — the low point coming when the boy crosses in front of another player's shot, and Bob yells, "Take the kid out!" With the croquet ball, that is.
But the strong language and hard feelings are mostly for show. So is the mayhem, though the players relish appearances to the contrary: on a part of the course where acorns are strewn across the ground like marbles, players sometimes land on their backs in the follow-through on a shot and lie there smiling broadly at the sky.
They also like to talk about the time a TV cameraman insisted on shooting a close-up of a ball being hit. The ball smashed into what everybody thought, for one glorious moment, was a $35,000 lens but turned out to be only a $12 filter.
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.
After a bad Sunday afternoon, says Fitzgerald's wife, Sue, her husband comes home in full pout. "Our cats give him a wide berth." So why go back Sunday after Sunday? Because on good days, she says, he's gloating, "like the king of all the realms. I just listen to him talk until he falls asleep." O
RICHARD CONNIFF'S most recent book is The Natural History of the Rich
The Connecticut eXtreme Croquet Society (members Mitch Kutys, Diana Warseck, Harry Hom, and Rich Malley) began 20 yrs ago.
Originally appeared in SMITHSONIAN (October 2003)
Used with Permission
Copyright © 2003 by Richard Conniff, All rights reserved
Images Copyright © 2003 by Gale Zucker, All rights reserved
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