A Touch of Grass

How Phoenix became a capital of cutthroat croquet.

It didn't take long in Bast's case. He played four or five times a week -- Patmor's court was always open, and Patmor or another member was usually available for a game -- and won his first national championship within months.

While the East Coasters -- who made up the bulk of the American croquet circuit -- preferred the cautious, strategy-minded American rules, the Arizonans liked the Association rules, which are aggressive, relying more on one's shot-making ability than brain power. Patmor says the American rules are similar to those played in England in the 1850s -- antiquated, and scoffed at today by international players. This led to hot fights, and in the '80s Patmor and some others actually broke away from the United States Croquet Association to start their own American Croquet Association to promote the other rules. In the end, Bast recalls, some Association techniques were incorporated into the American rules, which ultimately improved U.S. croquet for everyone.

"We were mavericks. We just didn't see any sense in kowtowing to anybody. . . . We had a definite impact on the game in this country," says Bast, who now lives in Austin, Texas, where, regrettably, there are no croquet courts.

Action at the 2001 Arizona Open.
Paolo Vescia
Action at the 2001 Arizona Open.
To the winner go the spoils -- often just an engraved spot on an Arizona Croquet Club plaque.
Paolo Vescia
To the winner go the spoils -- often just an engraved spot on an Arizona Croquet Club plaque.
Clockwise, from top right: Patty Dole, 2001 Arizona Open doubles champ. One of the few times croquet gets really dangerous: John Fournier jumps out of the way of an approaching ball. Charlie Smith swings the mallet.
Paolo Vescia
Clockwise, from top right: Patty Dole, 2001 Arizona Open doubles champ. One of the few times croquet gets really dangerous: John Fournier jumps out of the way of an approaching ball. Charlie Smith swings the mallet.
From top: Stan Patmor with mallet, cigar and cocktail — the essentials for a proper game of croquet. Patmor at home (right and below) making mallets.
Paolo Vescia
From top: Stan Patmor with mallet, cigar and cocktail — the essentials for a proper game of croquet. Patmor at home (right and below) making mallets.
Arizona Croquet Club champion Ren Kraft at home on his court.
Paolo Vescia
Arizona Croquet Club champion Ren Kraft at home on his court.

Garth Eliassen, editor and publisher of the Oregon-based National Croquet Calendar and a longtime croquet aficionado, actually prefers the American rules, but agrees that the Arizona club -- still arguably the strongest in the country, he acknowledges -- had a lasting impact on the rules of the game.

Players like Jim Bast come and go, so Patmor and other club members are always recruiting. One day Patmor was doing some landscape work for Patty Dole, a former physical education teacher who had played a lot of tennis and golf in her day, but never croquet. She noticed Patmor was wearing a shirt that said "Arizona Croquet Club."

"I grabbed him and said, 'What's that?' He said, 'Would you like to play?'" Dole recalls. After three tournaments, she was hooked. There are no gender boundaries in croquet, but the Arizona club has never attracted many women. Dole had a blast, eventually competing in tournaments around the world.

Dole's dentist was a guy named Don Fournier Sr. She told him about the game, and he liked it so much he built a croquet court in the front yard of his home at Phoenix Country Club and taught his kids to play. When Stan Patmor sold his house in the early '90s and moved into a condo, the Fournier court -- and the Fourniers themselves -- became the focal point of the Arizona Croquet Club.

Last year, the youngest Fournier, 17-year-old Jacques, became the first Arizonan -- and American -- to win the croquet world championship.


The weeklong Arizona Open continues with games at the croquet court at Gainey Ranch. The weather this morning is erratic -- sunny one moment and cloudy the next, and players in white shorts gather near a big outdoor fireplace.

Stan Patmor sits to the side, wearing his favorite old boater, relighting his cigar, catching the end of a close game. He looks pleased with himself. He should -- this is a beautiful setting, and he's responsible for it.

Years ago, he recalls, "Another guy and I came and sat on the developer's lap and convinced him he needed a croquet court out here."

There are players here from all over the country, but, as usual, most of the best are homegrown. Patmor watches Paul Bennett play singles. Bennett, an engineer at Motorola, joined the club several years ago. A sentimental decision -- he recalls watching his grandfather play croquet on clay courts, growing up in Kentucky. It was painful to watch Bennett learn, Patmor says, because he was so slow to pick up the game, but today he's one of the best. He proves it this week, coming in second in championship singles and winning the championship doubles title with Patty Dole.

From the novice's perspective, it must be admitted that Paul Bennett's game doesn't look much different from anyone else's.

"A lot of jokes are made about watching croquet -- like watching paint dry and all that -- if you don't know what's going on. But if you do know, it's very exciting," Patmor says, his eyes on the court.

There's a long pause.

"A better analogy would be watching grass grow -- you know, with the grass and all."

Years ago, they would have been sucking down the Bloody Marys by now, Patmor says, but there's less drinking now. It's not that the players have less stamina today, he says. To the contrary. There's never been any money to speak of in competitive croquet, but the stakes have gotten higher because the players have gotten better.

"In the good old days," Patmor says, "I think people worried less about losing."

Which is not quite the same, he observes, as worrying about winning.

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