A Touch of Grass

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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