Let's not be fooled by the croquet Establishment's irrelevant stats about fewest sports injuries, most fresh air and record-busting lemonade concession profits. Let's finally face it: The Sport of Plutocrats has rolled deep into the weeds. Is Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. right? Is today's go-go American lifestyle too frenetic for such leisurely 19th-century pastimes? No, blaming obsolescence is old hat. Croquet's problems are animal, vegetable and mineral. Herewith our analysis—and our Rx for the long-term survival of the noble old game.
?End player overcrowding. A Dutch sportscaster hit it on the sweet spot last season during the U.S. All-Stars' lawnstorming tour of Europe: "You can't tell the players without a census!" The Andorran team included all of Andorra. Extreme example? Sure, but it's high time the game's wide-open player admissions policy was tightened. "As long as you've got tots, golden labs and expectant moms on croquet teams," sighs one grizzled ball-knocker, "you can kiss the big time goodbye!"
?Standardize the playing area. Laissez-faire lawn dimensions aren't fair. This year's Florida Masters event rambled over most of Broward County, while the Empire State Open Invitational was run in a backyard in Levittown. Lawn conditions vary, too. Easterners historically flounder on buffalo-grass Montana lawns; Utahans are masters of the hardpan surface but humiliated in the bluegrass of Kentucky. Such disparities render most croquet stats and records meaningless.
?Either loosen the rules or issue flashlights. Fact: Seventy-seven percent of all 1997 championship games ran past dusk. Fact: Seven out of 10 Americans are afraid of the dark. Result: spectator evaporation and sloppy play. Alas, a mossbacked equipment committee stonewalls the flashlight idea every year. But the rules committee, now peppered with Young Turks under 75, may be ready at last to consider wider hoops and other changes aimed at speeding up the game's pace. In England experiments with a 30-second limit on stroke consideration have produced a record-smashing 12-minute match. Notwithstanding the naysayers' quibbles—"Yes, but the experiment involved chimpanzees!"—it's worth studying.
?Launch a croquet youth movement. When the 1996 croquet Rookie of the Year has to be placed in a home in '97, a call to youth is overdue. In fact, without an infusion of fresh blood—now!—croquet could vanish from the earth by 2012. (Don't scoff: It happened to Indian clubs.) Nor, frankly, can the game compete with shuffleboard and lawn bowling while dependent on a narrow sponsorship base of dentifrices and laxatives. Storm signal: The Adult Diaper Council just canceled its $20 million croquet tie-in to go with the "younger, hipper" World Cribbage Federation.
?Shorten the regular season. The 1998 croquet season began before the '97 session ended. The sport has taken Lawn of Famer Rex Tidwell Jr.'s boyish '61 cry of "Let's play four!" and multiplied it by two and added weekly Sunday nanoheaders, taxing player stamina and fan interest alike. Take this year's 27-games-in-one-weekend World Trophy finale. Yes, records toppled—but so did nine of the 12 finalists.
?Enforce the f——— no-profanity rule. "It's what separates croquet from golf!" cry proponents of profanity. "It breaks the tension!" Balderdash! Croquet's hypocritical wink at the fusillades of foul language that punctuate virtually every stroke in every game must end. "On the one hand they talk decorum, manners, breeding," fumes an ex-croquet TV analyst. "On the other, one Seniors finalist tells another, 'You touch my f——— ball and I'm going to take your g——— colostomy bag and stuff it down your m—————— throat!' "
?Beware the radical element. Jane Fonda uses Larry King Live to announce her plan for "rescuing croquet from suburbia," which includes domed, artificial-turf, indoor, downtown facilities; men and women segregated in separate-but-equal leagues; players penalized for carrying martinis and cigars. But she misses the point. Croquet without suburbia—i.e., a croquet shorn of its Updikean mind games; its adder-strikes of viciousness made mellow in the dappled shade of tall elms; its scents of grass, hydrangeas, gin, shellac, Marlboros, weed-killer, dogs, fertilizer, old tennis shoes and fear—would be a mockery of what none other than Alexis de Tocqueville, after witnessing his first game on a Cincinnati greensward more than a century and a half ago, felicitously dubbed "polo for pedestrians."