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REAL CROQUET IS A `WICKET, WICKET’ GAME

SHARE REAL CROQUET IS A `WICKET, WICKET’ GAME

I lined up my 7-foot shot across the smooth carpet of grass, deftly manicured to a precise 5/32 of an inch, and stroked the textured ball.

No, I haven't broken my personal lifetime boycott on golf. This was a real sport of steely nerves, careful strategy and cunning gamesmanship.This was croquet.

Big-time croquet, not that stuff you play in the back yard with coat-hanger wickets from that $25 "deluxe" set you bought at a discount store. This match had referees with stopwatches, a lined court and a "deadness" board, which refers to a facet of play, not the pulse rate of the players, thank you.

This was the Denver Croquet Club's Corporate Challenge tournament. Neal Wol-ko-doff, who writes about health and fitness for the Colorado People Sunday magazine, and I represented the Rocky Mountain News. But not well.

Croquet does have an image problem. Whenever a sporting event becomes excruciatingly dull, somebody writes it is "about as exciting as croquet." The hottest publicity the game ever got was when Greg and Paige played "strip croquet" on "Knots Landing."

Croquet players wear all white and celebrate a good shot by uttering a demure, "Well done," not by pumping their mallet in the air and spiking the wooden ball.

Croquet was dropped from the Olympics after the 1900 Games in Paris. Wimbledon is played at the All-England Lawn and Tennis and Croquet Club, but you never see Bud Collins on NBC carrying on about the great wicket play on the lawns. Michael Jordan never bets on croquet.

Serious croquet is a mix of billiards and chess, which may explain why you see it so infrequently on ESPN. Balls have only a 1/8-inch clearance to pass through a wicket, which is where the phrase "sticky wicket" comes from, just in case that question comes up the next time you're watching "Jeopardy!"

The next time you play, remember crucial elements of strategy are that you get two shots if you hit somebody else's ball (unless you're "dead" on that ball, in which case you get no shots) and figuring out how to bisect angles to place two simultaneously hit balls.

Or else just keep whacking your opponent's ball toward the lake and hope for the best.

A great thing about croquet - and the source of its appeal to older players - is that strength, youth and athletic skills give no advantage. This was good because our first-round opponents, Casey Gray and Sydney Moruzzi of Hooter's Restaurant, were much younger, stronger and more athletic than Neal and I. The fact that they had never played before allowed us to withstand a furious late-match rally and win 21-20.

"That was one of the most exciting matches I've seen," tournament co-director Doug Merrill said. The gallery - a couple on roller skates and a guy who stopped beside the court to fix his bicycle chain - was fairly in a frenzy.

Then we played Kevin Baird and David Ellis of the law firm Gorsuch, Kirgis, Campbell, Walker, Grover and Croquet, who apparently spend way too much time on the lawn when they could be polishing torts or whatever it is lawyers do with their free time. They cruised around the course like Willie Mosconi running a rack of 9-ball and beat us 20-15. It wasn't as close as it appeared.

When it was over, I just knew Rudyard Kipling was referring to me when he wrote in "The Islanders" about "the flanneled fools at the wicket."

I didn't wear flannel, but he got the rest of it right.