Wall Street Journal - "Croquet, Anyone?"
By CHARLES PASSY
Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
It may not sound like springtime's coolest of come-ons. After all, isn't croquet a backyard relic, the territory of the white-shoe set or yard-destroying kids? It turns out, though, that the sport is making a quiet comeback: Membership in the U.S. Croquet Association increased 10% last year, while one big equipment maker, Oakley Woods of Canada, says sales of its sets have grown by 75% a year -- for the last four years running.
Plus, many players are pushing the sport as an alternative to tennis or golf. "It's the ultimate social callisthenic," says Bob Alman, of the just-opened National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., which bills itself as the world's largest facility for the sport.
So we decided to take another crack at croquet. We didn't necessarily need a professional set -- these models go for $700 or more -- but something serious and solid, a few notches above the backyard "toy" versions of our youth. Scouring catalogs and Internet sources, we came up with five sets, each in a carrying bag or wooden box and with enough mallets and balls for at least four players.
To judge the sets, we headed over to the National Croquet Center and knocked some balls around with the husband-wife team of Dick and Mary Knapp -- he's a retired investment consultant recently ranked 15th internationally, and she's an active player who teaches croquet at the center. We also picked up a few pointers from the center's Mr. Alman, who says mallets should be substantial enough to permit a good swing and balls solid enough to maintain momentum in the grass. Put it all together and -- this is the good part -- you're properly equipped to knock your opponent's ball clear across the lawn.
Croquet sets from
(1) World Wide Sports
(2) Red Envelope
(4) Kensington Trading Company
(5) Oakley Woods.
World Wide Sports
It was a challenge getting the ball to move at all with the Franklin Professional set, $60 from World Wide Sports. This was a cartoonish affair, with flimsy rubber-tipped mallets -- the other mallets were wood -- and balls that came closer to children's bath toys. Mary volunteered that the set might make for a good children's indoor game. ("But you'd have trouble getting the wickets in the carpet," she added.)
Red Envelope's entry was a slight notch above in quality -- the mallets were the 36-inch regulation norm -- but it was still on the comical side. The wickets were extra wide, Dick noted, which made the game too easy. And the insubstantial wooden storage box had already started coming apart. Adding insult to injury: We found this same set being sold by another merchant for $80 -- half of Red Envelope's $160 price!
With Orvis' $180 Bar Harbor set, we felt as if we were closer to the real deal: The polished wood mallets immediately impressed our testers and the balls, though still on the small side, more closely resembled the 1-pound regulation variety. "For learning the game, it's fine," Dick said. We name it Best Value.
Kensington Trading Company & Oakley Woods Croquet
We had a harder time settling on a Best Overall. At about $300 each, the Kensington Trading Company's Richmond set and Oakley Woods' Sport Croquet set were high-quality affairs, with mallets with all the height, weight and heft to put the sport in proper perspective. And while the balls were a few ounces shy of regulation weight, they zipped across the lawn. Even the wickets were just right -- wide but not too wide.
In the end, our testers gave the edge to Oakley, saying its fatter-handled mallets had a slightly better feel.
But regardless of which set you buy, our recommendation is simply to buy one. After spending a couple of afternoons on the croquet court, we're convinced this is the best option for backyard fun since the hammock. Let the game begin.
Sport croquet set, $299
- Quality: Best Overall. Classy and sturdy. Nine wickets (instead of standard six) meant more playing options. Also includes four mallets, four balls, detailed rules booklet. Packaged in heavy-duty bag.
- Shipping Cost/Time: We paid $22 for delivery in about five business days; order was on time.
- Return Policy: Return within 30 days, call first. There's a two-year full-replacement guarantee.
- Phone/Web Experience: Very helpful and informed. Representative walked us through the company's product line and suggested this set as the best for us.
Bar Harbor croquet set, $179
- Quality: Best Value. Attractive and durable. Our testers liked glossy finish of the mallets, but we thought they might be short for some adults. Six mallets, nine wickets, six balls, basic rules booklet.
- Shipping Cost/Time: Seven to 10 days, $12.95; our order arrived on time.
- Return Policy: Catalog promises a refund "anytime, for any reason." You pay shipping if item isn't damaged or defective.
- Phone/Web Experience: Online ordering was a breeze. We received a receipt and shipping update by e-mail.
Kensington Trading Company
Richmond croquet set, $297
- Quality: A close second for Best Overall, but our testers preferred the Oakley mallets. Comes with four mallets and balls, plus six wickets. Set is packed in a sturdy bag with a detailed rules booklet.
- Shipping Cost/Time: Four to six business days, $22.50; our order arrived on time.
- Return Policy: Return within 30 days in "original" condition. Call before shipping.
- Phone/Web Experience: Patient and knowledgeable. After much discussion of various sets, our representative confidently steered us toward this one.
World Wide Sports
Franklin Pro croquet set, $59.90
- Quality: This set felt relatively flimsy, down to the thin nylon carrying bag. "You'd want to trade up right away," a tester said. Six balls, six mallets, nine wickets, rule booklet.
- Shipping Cost/Time: Nine business days, $11.75; our order arrived on time.
- Return Policy: Return, unused, within 30 days. Call before shipping.
- Phone/Web Experience: We ordered online without hassle and received an e-mail confirmation of our order. Site is a bit on the cluttered side, though.
Comments: Company has a large selection of sporting goods. It says this is a popular item, and it has received few returns.
Croquet set, $160
- Quality: Slightly better than the set from World Wide Sports but $100 more. Our testers said the balls were light and the wickets wide. Wooden carrying box arrived damaged. Four mallets, four balls, nine wickets, rules booklet.
- Shipping Cost/Time: Five to nine business days, $5.95; our order arrived on time.
- Return Policy: Exchange or refund anytime if "gift isn't exactly what you wanted." Company pays shipping if item is damaged or defective.
- Phone/Web Experience: Online ordering was easy, but when we called to ask who makes the set, company wouldn't tell us-though the name of the manufacturer, Sportcraft, is right on the box.
Comments: We found the same set for $80 elsewhere. Company says it bases price on what other retailers charge and other factors, and said it hadn't had complaints about the box.