Around the corner on a certain dirt road in the woods near McCall, there waits a sight that is hard to believe: a perfectly level, felt-green croquet court.
It is immediately evident that this lawn isn't for your backyard barbecue variety croquet. The court is bordered by granite glacial erratics and covered in manicured, quarter-inch Kentucky bluegrass, trim as a golf green. Sturdy, inch-thick wickets stand like tiny triumphal arches--they're only one-eighth of an inch wider than the balls. Most impressively, the whole thing is an 85-foot by 105-foot laser-level rectangle carved into the forested hillside by Xandy (pronounced Sandy) Carter, founder and proprietor of the McCall Croquet Club.
"I had some land and I loved croquet, so I got a bulldozer and got to work," Carter said with a smile.
The number of people who play the sport both locally and nationally are few, and the number of people who play the sport seriously and not just socially are even fewer. Perhaps 30 people occupy the top ranks nationally. And the McCall Croquet Club doesn't advertise much. The only way anyone is likely to hear about it is by word of mouth. The bigger surprise is that this court is the only nationally recognized croquet court in Idaho and accessing it requires a four-wheel drive into the forest. But any game with followers willing to do that to play is worth a shot.
Richard Stewart certainly agrees. He has been playing New American Six Wicket Croquet since 2000, which is roughly when the McCall court was built.
A sturdy construction worker of a man with lank gray hair falling out of his well-worn cap, Stewart doesn't fit the stereotype of aristocratic croquet player. Yet his excitement about the game was palpable and infectious. Once on the court with the 1-pound balls and hand-crafted, sledgehammer-shaped mallets, he was full of advice, and his mind jumped ahead to plan shots two, three, four strokes ahead.
"There are about seven ways to hit the ball, depending on how much energy you want to transfer," he explained, demonstrating how to put spin on a ball when two of them are touching--that's called the croquet stroke. That stroke affects which ball, the one directly hit or the other, will travel farther.
"What you can't have is for your opponent to get a four-ball break. That is just suicide," Stewart warned and promptly gained one himself, using the extra strokes earned by a "roquet"--knocking your ball into another ball--to leapfrog across the court. He carefully lined up his shots, hit the balls with finesse and let them come to a stop only feet from the wicket, one on each side. He was then able to make it through two wickets in one turn.
Carter knows the history of croquet as well as how to play. He explained that New American Six-Wicket Croquet was developed in the 1960s as a spin-off from Association Croquet, a game still played around the world and dominated by the British.
Croquet as a sport is well organized by the United States Croquet Association, based in West Palm Beach, Fla. The McCall Club falls into the Western Region and Carter is the District Chairman for the National Croquet Association, as well as in charge of the McCall Club, which he built on his property entirely at his own expense.
"I first got into croquet a long time ago, back right before I became a professional paid steely eyed killer," Carter said, referring to his time as a Marine Corps pilot. He was laid-back and at ease, and even though he was coping with the effects of a recent stroke, he cracked jokes and told stories about the tournaments held at his court.
"The croquet scene is pretty small, really," Carter said. "[The players are] mostly older people with time to travel. You know, we have a nationally competitive fellow in McCall and an ex-champion living in Boise."
Men and women play together, and the club welcomes serious new players. They are a reclusive bunch, though, and anyone wishing to contact the McCall club is asked to do so through the U.S. Croquet Association at croquetamerica.com.
"We used to start out with bloody marys and the first match about 9 in the morning. We would roast a pig and things would wrap up with the championship about 4 [in the afternoon]," Stewart said. "Then we had a feast and drinks."
From about 40 people back then, the McCall Club's membership has dwindled to just two or three aficionados. While the legendary tournaments may be over, a monumental trophy still sits in Carter's home. And for those two or three people who still play, having a croquet green nearby helps keep them both mentally and physically alert.
"Most people think of croquet as something to do while the burgers cook," Stewart said. "But the real game has more analogies to the strategy of chess, the physics of billiards and the coordination of golf."