Feature: Hoop Dreams
Jerry Stark finds himself in a vexing predicament: His ball is jawsed—stuck between the jaws of the hoop, one of the arches commonly referred to as wickets but known among the croquet cognoscenti as hoops. Such is the consequence of flubbing a routine shot, one that the 49-year-old croquet instructor has made countless times since he began playing the game more than 25 years ago. Every sport requires executions that world-class players perform with deceptive ease: catching a fly ball, dribbling a basketball, skating. Croquet’s equivalent of sinking a 6-foot putt is rolling a ball through a hoop that allows no more than one-sixteenth of an inch of clearance, a measurement comparable to the thickness of a dime. In this critical early-afternoon doubles match against a duo from Australia, Stark had intended to send the ball cleanly under the arch, thus earning a hoop point and a continuation stroke, or another chance to hit a ball. But when he lined up his mallet and swung, the ball shot forward and ricocheted between the uprights.
“Jer-ry!” he cries, throwing his head back in anguish. When a struck ball touches the uprights of a hoop, it is a fault, an error that ends the turn. This setback could ultimately cost Stark and his doubles partner, John Taves, the game.
Tournament croquet is essentially a race around the field with each team moving its two balls (red and yellow always compete against blue and black) through all six of the hoops, twice, in the correct direction, and then hitting them against the wooden peg in the center of the field, a maneuver known as pegging out. The first team—or in a singles match, player—to accomplish this wins the game.
Stark’s fault gives the Australians a chance to pull ahead of the Americans in the race to the center peg, and if Stark and Taves lose this game, they will be finished for the day; the pair already dropped the morning game in today’s best-of-three match. Stark is therefore incensed as he walks off the field. He continues to fume while he idles on the veranda of the National Croquet Center clubhouse, never sitting, steadily cursing to himself, and occasionally releasing a deep sigh.
The MacRobertson Shield is played in a series of three five-day tests, with 12 singles matches and nine doubles matches in each test. An entire day, or round, is devoted to one of the two types of matches. The first team to win 11 matches wins the test, and the team that wins the most tests overall wins the Shield. In the event of a tie, the team that wins the greatest percentage of matches is awarded the Shield.
This mid-November afternoon is the first day of the third and final test of the 2003 MacRobertson Shield tournament. The 78-year-old contest, which is played every three years, pits teams of six players from each of the four leading croquet nations—Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States—against each other over a two-week span. The National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., is hosting this edition of the Shield, the first to be staged on American soil, and Stark, captain of the U.S. team and a four-time Shield veteran, is determined to make history. The Americans have a chance to take second place, their highest Shield finish ever, if they can defeat the Australians, a challenge made more difficult by the captain’s miscue.
The Australians continue to play, maintaining control of the field by completing hoops or roqueting, a maneuver in which a player strikes a ball (his own or his opponent’s) so that it hits another ball. A successful roquet earns the player two additional strokes, and those who are skilled at roqueting can keep their opponents waiting on the sidelines for quite some time. “We do not want to whack your ball into the woods. We’re crueler,” says head referee Rhys Thomas, explaining how tournament rules allow for such a plan, and how Shield play differs from the backyard game. “We want to use you to further our way around the course and then cast you aside at the end like a used olive pit.”
When the Americans’ turn arrives, Stark confronts the red menace again, summoning a referee to watch as he attempts to knock the ball out from under the arch. The rules do not oblige Stark to ask for an official witness, but he has the option and chooses to exercise it.
“I did not have to do it, but out of courtesy to my opponent, I did,” he says later, explaining that a player is expected to police himself and report any rules violations that he commits during the course of the game. “When you want to concentrate on what you are doing, you sometimes cannot tell if you are committing a fault or not. Out of respect for the opponents and yourself, you call a referee. Then you do not have to concentrate on anything but what you have to do.”
Although the shot has his undivided attention, Stark bungles this one, too, or so the referee determines, ruling that Stark double-tapped, or hit the ball more than once with the mallet—another fault. The violation costs the Americans their turn. If Stark was angry before, he is furious now, at the ref and at himself. He returns to the veranda, abandoning his previously mild curses for a certain four-letter term for the procreative act. He utters the word audibly but never raises his voice above normal speaking volume. Too upset to stand still, Stark paces. He pulls his white USA baseball cap from his head, strikes it against a table, puts it back on, and growls, “I’m going to lunch,” then heads for the table at the opposite end of the veranda. In a tournament such as this, players typically agree to break for lunch sometime between 11:30 am and 1 pm, and the game stops until they return. However, Stark’s action, which suddenly halts play, is unilateral, though no one immediately compels him to return to the field. Clearly, he needs a time-out. “Jerry Stark is an emotional player,” says Thomas. “He thrives on it, and he tanks on it.”
The Macrobertson Shield is the sport’s most prestigious tournament. It is tempting to call it croquet’s Super Bowl, but that would not only be trite, it would be an understatement, at least according to Croquet World Online’s characterization. “Put together the Ryder Cup, the America’s Cup, and the Davis Cup and double their significance, and you approximate the importance of the MacRobertson Shield in the sport of organized croquet,” states an article published by the web magazine that covers the sport’s events and personalities. Of the 24 players in the Shield’s 2003 edition, six are ranked among the world’s top 10, and Robert Fulford, the 34-year-old captain of the British team, is the number-one-ranked player.
A world-class player displays the same foresight as a chess master and the same grasp of kinetics and fine motor skills as a billiards champion. All of the MacRobertson Shield competitors possess these qualities to varying degrees (each player is ranked among the world’s top 100), but no one combines them to a more devastating effect than Fulford. A good croquet player can manage a peel, a tricky maneuver in which one ball is struck so that it transfers its momentum to another ball, thus propelling the other ball through its next hoop. A world-class player can complete a triple peel, an end-game tactic that involves moving a passive ball through its final three hoops and pegging it out. Fulford is capable of sextuple peels, in which he steers the passive ball through six hoops before pegging out. He completed three sextuple peels during the 2003 MacRobertson Shield, one during each test.
Great Britain has become a MacRobertson Shield dynasty, winning the last five consecutive tournaments, including this year’s, and 12 overall. In fact, the British team has not lost a test since 1986. Croquet is the last remaining sport in which Great Britain plays against several of its former colonies and dominates them utterly; no member of the British team ranks lower than 20th in the world standings. “There are pressures that come with being expected to win, but I think it can be an advantage,” says Fulford. “Croquet is a game where a lot rests on how you cope with the pressure, how you deal with the situation. To some extent, the better you are, the less pressure there is on you.”
Fulford’s comfort with high-stakes tournaments is apparent on the field. In the rare instance when a ball does not follow his direction to the letter, he regards this as an irritation rather than a betrayal, shaking his head vigorously as if to say, “This will not do.”
Like many here, Fulford, an accountant in Colchester, England, has arranged his life so that he can participate in far-flung invitational croquet tournaments. He has chosen to work for a sympathetic boss who, not coincidentally, was a member of Great Britain’s 1979 MacRobertson Shield team. Stark is the resident croquet pro at the Meadowood Napa Valley resort in St. Helena, Calif.. While some of these men (this year’s roster does not include any women) are retirees, none is independently wealthy. A few are computer technicians or business owners. A financial advisor, an economist, a teacher, and a justice of the peace are also on the teams. And there is a banker who recently finished a term as the mayor of his town, another banker with a side career as a painter, and a hospital chef who was once a stripper. Day jobs are necessary because no one can live on croquet purses, and while many players (Fulford and his doubles partner, Chris Clarke, among them) are single, a significant minority, including Stark and Taves, are married with children. Indeed, the MacRobertson Shield does not offer any prize money. In 2003, The National Croquet Calendar, one of the sport’s newsletters, published a list of players’ total tournament purses earned during the previous 17 years. Fulford topped the list with $20,600. Stark was third overall with $14,750, and Clarke was seventh with $11,300.
Fulford would like to subsist on croquet alone, and he attempted to do so during the 1990s. “Between 1990 and 1997, I didn’t have a proper job,” he says, explaining that he tried to make a living from coaching and winning tournament purses. Most of his colleagues, however, seem to prefer that the sport retain its essentially amateur status. His doubles partner, Clarke, enjoys the more relaxed atmosphere: “If I lose a match here, it’s just annoying,” he explains. “But if I were a professional golfer, and I missed 15 cups in a row, there would be no bread on the table.” Stephen Mulliner, a 50-year-old father of four and a Great Britain team veteran, concurs. “Croquet is one of the few sports where you can have a fairly normal life—a family and a business life,” he says.
The greatest honor a croquet player can receive is an invitation to join his nation’s MacRobertson Shield team. It is akin to being selected for the Olympics, and the chosen gladly make sacrifices to represent their countries. Mulliner was willing to give up his banking job when he was first selected in 1982, a time when Shield play required a two-month commitment. “I asked for leave to play, and when they said they were not keen, I told them I was handing in my notice,” he recalls. “I can work for any bank, but I might have only one chance to play for Britain.” The bank officially gave him two months of leave, one paid and one unpaid, but after Mulliner returned home triumphant, he learned that his employer had quietly covered both months. He has since represented Great Britain in four other MacRobertson Shield tournaments.
Like Mulliner, Stark is enthralled by the pure joy he finds in the sport, even if that pleasure is occasionally tempered by the type of frustration he experienced in the game against the Australians. Recalling the backyard games he played in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Kansas City, where he grew up, and later in Arizona, he says, “It was fun, as much fun as I’d ever had, and it caught me. I’ve been an addict ever since. I don’t know what it is about it that hooks some people and not others, but for me, it’s strictly the competition.”
Against Australia, Stark’s competitive nature was on display for the handful of spectators seated on the veranda at the National Croquet Center. “My temper got the best of me on that day, but that’s life, too,” he says. While he may regret his tantrum, he does not second-guess his decision to have an official scrutinize the shot that provoked it. “Most sports guys, and women too, try to get away with things in order to win. It’s not just sports, either. They do whatever they must do to win at all costs. To me, that’s not the way to live,” he says. “I’m not religious at all. I don’t go to church, and I don’t read the Bible. But to me, there is right and wrong, and civilized and uncivilized. You play by the rules.”
Stark and Taves did win in the jawsed-ball game, though they and the other two American doubles teams ultimately lost their best-of-three matches that day. However, as the fifth day of play begins, the Americans and the Australians are tied at nine wins apiece. A pivotal moment arrives during another Stark and Taves’ doubles match against Australian captain Bruce Fleming and Martin Clarke. Australia is now leading the test with 10 wins to America’s nine. Late in the match, Stark and his partner decide they will take a calculated risk and attempt to perform a triple peel on Fleming’s ball. If their strategy prevails, it will remove Fleming from the game and leave Clarke, the weaker of the two Australian players, to face the Americans on his own. But if the Americans fail to complete the triple peel, they will gift wrap an opportunity for the Aussie captain to sweep in and win the game.
Alas, the gambit fails: Stark misses a critical shot and relinquishes control of the field. Soon after, Fleming raises his fist in triumph as Australia wins the game and the test and captures second place overall.
“We’re all disappointed we did not get second place,” Stark says after the match. “But we all had chances to make it 11–10 or 12–9 in our favor.
We’ve all lost matches we’d like to play again. Overall, I’m happy with my play, but I’m never really satisfied.” With that, he heads off to his day job at Meadowood, to teach novices, practice, and prepare for the next big tournament.