"Pardon me, Lord Fauntleroy," says Don Fournier. "Gramps is here, and your croquet court is set up."
Lord Fauntleroy is in fact Fournier's 13-year-old son, Jacques. Gramps is Don's 69-year-old father-in-law, Ray Hamm. And the court is the meticulously manicured greensward in Phoenix that doubles as the Fourniers' front lawn. Hefting a mallet on his shoulder, Jacques slowly, coolly walks onto the green. "Gramps may run a couple of hoops, but he won't beat me," he says flatly. "He doesn't look at the big picture."
Gramps runs a couple of hoops with his red ball. Then Jacques runs a couple with his black one. Gramps runs a couple more. Jacques measures the lie of the balls with his pale blue eyes. "I'm going to roquet his out of bounds," he says. Concentrating intensely, he bends double and swings his mallet in a wide arc. The sharp, hollow click of mallet against ball punctuates the air. The ball—which probably isn't influenced by Jacques' shouts of "Come on! Go! Go! Go!"—rolls 20 feet and misses Gramps's ball by half an inch. "Unfortunately," Jacques says with a small shrug, "when a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer is watching you, you tend not to be as accurate."
SI is watching because Jacques is one of the country's premier croquet players. He turned more than a few tony heads at last year's U.S. Nationals in Newport, R.I., where he finished fourth in the singles and fifth in the doubles. "There's no trophy for fourth place," says Jacques, the youngest qualifier in the event's 18-year history. "But I was so happy about my results that my parents had a special glass one made just for me."
The championship croquet Jacques plays is not to be confused with your backyard variety, in which most of the balls wind up in the azaleas. The rules are similar, but as players work their way through unyielding, diabolically skinny wickets, it becomes clear that their gamesmanship is on another level. Called the Sport of Stings, croquet is a game of passion, intellect and naked aggression. Jacques plays with great skill and mallets aforethought. "My opponents are sometimes psyched out before they begin," he says gleefully.
Jacques picked up the game from his father, a dentist who began playing during time off from a meeting in California. "You probably think I don't have many fillings," says Jacques. "The truth is I've got lots and lots. I forget to brush."
But not to practice. "If I spent more time on homework and less on croquet," says the eighth-grader, "I'd probably get straight As." Jacques hones his game in his front yard. To build a regulation court, his father had to uproot four giant palm trees and add 450 tons of dirt. "I try to keep my pets off the grass," Jacques says.
"How many do you have?" he is asked.