A Touch of Grass

How Phoenix became a capital of cutthroat croquet.

Patmor had too much fun to bother with a real business. "We were doing screwball activities at the Blue Goat all the time," he recalls. The bar featured gospel singing and Bloody Marys on Saturday afternoons, a table of bridge that never stopped, even model rocket launchings.

And, for a group of regulars, off-hours croquet in Patmor's backyard.

"It grew from the greatest of seeds, which were basically drunken afternoons in Stan's backyard with hamburgers and beers, with orange trees in the way on the court, burying each other's balls with glee in the oleanders," says Doug Whitneybell, now a renowned Valley architect and then a Blue Goat regular.

Northern California's Charlie Smith.
Paolo Vescia
Northern California's Charlie Smith.
From left, three of the four founding members of the Arizona Croquet Club: Ed Cline, Stan Patmor and Doug Whitneybell.
Paolo Vescia
From left, three of the four founding members of the Arizona Croquet Club: Ed Cline, Stan Patmor and Doug Whitneybell.

They didn't play by any particular rules in those days, which quickly became a problem as the players got better and the game more competitive. One day, Whitneybell recalls, Patmor ran inside the house to dig up some rules and came out with an aging sheet of paper with blue mimeographed lettering. Those aren't real rules, his friend scoffed, and Whitneybell ventured to the Phoenix Public Library to look for some. He found one dust-covered book about croquet that gave him the idea to call the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. From there he secured a phone number for the Croquet Association of England, and Vandelur Robinson, an officer with the association.

"I never met the man, but I have this picture of this sort of ruddy, secretarial man in a tattered sweater," Whitneybell says. Robinson sent him typed letters detailing the real rules of the game -- filled with misspellings and cross-outs -- and put the Arizonans in touch with some folks in Santa Barbara who already had an established club.

The first possible day, Patmor, Whitneybell and two of their fellow croquet aficionados (Ed Cline, a photographer, and Bill Hermann, an English teacher and future high school principal and Arizona Republic reporter) secured an invitation and drove to a private golf club in Santa Barbara. They laughed when they saw the beautiful greens, recessed marble boundaries and cast iron hoops -- a far cry from Patmor's "lumpy, bumpy" lawn.

Over the next few years, the Santa Barbarans coached the foursome. "Before long, we got a lot better than them," Patmor says. "We were younger."

On the drive back from that first trip, they started writing the Arizona Croquet Club constitution. The original hangs in Ren Kraft's tiny clubhouse -- between the bar (ramshackle but stocked) and the bathroom (Astroturf on the floor and the four walls painted blue, black, red and yellow, for the four colors of the game). Today, the writing on the constitution is barely legible, because someone insisted on using Mont Blanc ink to make it classy. Too bad it fades.

With deep gratitude and appreciation the Arizona Croquet Club acknowledges Stan Patmor and His Lawn
-- plaque hanging inside the foyer of Stan Patmor's condo

When Patmor and his friends returned from Santa Barbara, their first order of business was to make a proper croquet court. Each chose a tree on Stan's lawn and had the responsibility for removing and hauling it away.

Soon, they had a real court: 84 by 105 feet, perfectly smooth, with short grass. They sent away to England and Australia for regulation equipment -- mallets, balls, hoops, flags.

Versions of the game have been traced to 14th-century France -- and Ireland has some claim on it, too -- but the croquet played today more closely resembles the British version popularized in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Competitive croquet incorporates six hoops instead of the backyard game's nine, and four balls instead of six. The hoops are much narrower than the kind you're likely used to; clearance is only half an inch. But the goal of the game is still to make it through each hoop twice and then "peg out."

To further complicate matters, there are two versions of the game -- American rules and Association rules, a hot topic of debate in the croquet world, since the Arizonans and non-Americans prefer the latter while most American teams favor the former.

Once Patmor and Co. had their court set up, they began to recruit members. It wasn't hard to find future croquet junkies. Word spread unofficially. After a few years, Whitneybell and Hermann stopped playing much, but Patmor and Cline persevered, and the club membership grew to a few dozen. Many became champions, like Jim Bast, who moved to Phoenix in the early '80s to work part-time in the airline industry. Bast, who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, recalls the enormous backyard croquet parties of his youth. Someone would rent a farmer's field and mow it way down, bring in a band and beer trucks with spigots and throw a 48-hour party.

"We knew that somewhere in the world . . . there was actually a real sport of croquet, but we knew nothing about it," Bast says. He found it in Phoenix. The members were "just the nicest, most wonderful, helpful folks," he recalls. Fiercely competitive, yes, but even the best took great pride when a protégé could finally beat him.

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