A Touch of Grass

How Phoenix became a capital of cutthroat croquet.

 Alice thought she had never seen such a curious croquet-ground in all her life; it was all ridges and furrows; the balls were five hedgehogs, the mallets live flamingoes, and the soldiers had to double themselves up and to stand upon their hands and feet, to make the arches. . . . Alice soon came to the conclusion that it was a very difficult game indeed.

-- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Walking onto Ren Kraft's croquet court is a bit like passing through the looking glass. The Kraft home is tucked into an aging Paradise Valley cul-de-sac hued pale green and brown with paloverde, eucalyptus and cholla. Behind some brush and oleanders, the desert ends and England begins on this cool March day. Players clad in white gather on a perfect emerald green lawn, silent except for the occasional crack of mallet against ball.

From top: Britt Ruby aims for the hoop. Arizona Croquet Club member John Fournier lines up the ball.
Paolo Vescia
From top: Britt Ruby aims for the hoop. Arizona Croquet Club member John Fournier lines up the ball.

There are no flamingoes or doubled-up soldiers -- just the occasional brown desert rabbit appears on the edge of the court -- but poor Alice would find this game of croquet no easier than the Queen's version.

This is not the backyard croquet you played as a kid, but rather a game that requires the strategy of chess, the hand/eye coordination of golf and the nerves of billiards. This is the 20th annual Arizona Open, one of the most competitive croquet tournaments in the country, sponsored by the Arizona Croquet Club, home to some of the best players in the world.

How, you ask, did Arizona come to be a stronghold for a game favored by the Hamptons/Palm Beach crowd? The answer is a guy named Stan Patmor.

Patmor hasn't played competitive croquet in years -- and he never did capture the elusive national championship his clubmates have taken numerous times in the past -- but he is a member of the game's official national hall of fame and the undisputed godfather of Arizona croquet.

He's not here right now. He's home making tamales for this evening's cocktail party -- a good Scotch being as essential to the game as balls and mallets. But that doesn't mean Stan Patmor doesn't take his croquet seriously.

He does. Before he agrees to be interviewed for a story, Patmor secures repeated promises that croquet will be treated with reverence as the competitive sport that he knows, rather than mocked as a little kids' game. He agrees to be photographed with a cocktail and a cigar, but with no more than four balls on the ground at any time, since only four are ever used in one proper game. And he looks downright horrified when an observer refers to the white metal brackets the ball passes through as "wickets."

Wickets are not used in croquet, Patmor explains. Those are used in the game of cricket. "They never even consider wicket as a name for those devices in England," he says. They're hoops. "Arch" and "bridge" are antiquated terms that are also technically appropriate, Patmor adds grudgingly.

No matter that most of the books on croquet in Patmor's collection refer to the devices as wickets, anyhow. Stan Patmor holds himself and his game to a higher standard. Croquet is his life. Over the past 40 years, Patmor has run a series of businesses -- his tastes tend toward landscaping and restaurateuring -- but croquet has been a constant for the bachelor. His small condo is packed with mallets, balls and other equipment (which he makes and sells), the coffee table crowded with croquet journals and magazines. The people he's met through the game are his family, and even so, he gave up his membership in the Arizona Croquet Club for several years in the '90s after a man Patmor claims is dishonorable was allowed to join.

The man is now gone and Patmor is back, helping to build up the club again after some relatively lean times. That should be no great task for Patmor and his club, legendary in national and international croquet circles for their renegade style both on and off the court, a style that has led to fundamental changes in the way the competitive version of the game is played today.

Johnny Mitchell, an officer in the United States Croquet Association and top-ranking player, lives in Houston but calls Patmor his croquet mentor. Patmor, Mitchell says, has taught him a valuable lesson: "The game's more than winning and losing. It's more of a lifestyle, almost."

Stan Patmor, a disheveled blue-collar guy in an ancient Subaru station wagon, is not your typical Town & Country pinup, but there he is -- postage-stamp-size but recognizable, in an old clip in a scrapbook he keeps. The story begins, as most croquet stories do, in someone's backyard.

In the late 1950s a twentysomething Patmor left the Navy and settled in Phoenix, where he dabbled in landscape architecture. His real love was folk music, so Patmor opened one of the Valley's first coffee houses in central Scottsdale. John Denver and the Kingston Trio were regular drop-ins at The Mews, as well as at Patmor's next venue, a bar called the Blue Goat. More grown-ups' tree house than bar, really, the way he describes it. No bartender, just some beer and wine behind the counter and a cigar box for making your own change. The Scottsdale City Council held "unofficial" meetings at the Blue Goat, and the bar attracted the city's arts crowd.

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