When Joe Yoder talks about playing his favorite sport, he often gets strange looks, along with a few wisecracks.
“You still play that?” is a common one. “I stopped playing that as a kid,” is another.
The reaction isn’t surprising. The sport is croquet.
Sure, it was fun as a kid hitting those colored balls through wire hoops stuck in the yard, and even more fun knocking other kids’ balls away. But before long, we moved on to other things, and the old croquet set went the way of our ant farm, Slinky and Chinese checkers.
Not so for Yoder. For him and other adult croquet enthusiasts around the world, it’s not a childhood game.
He saw what’s called “association croquet” being played in New York about 20 years ago, took it up then, and still plays a couple times a week.
“It’s a lot different game than what we played as kids,” he says. “There’s significantly more to it. This is not your grandmother’s croquet.”
Association croquet, as established in this country by the United States Croquet Association, is played with fewer balls and hoops than the backyard variety. And those hoops, better known as wickets, are only an eighth of an inch wider than the ball.
That, as they say, makes it a whole new ballgame.
In fact, Yoder estimates that the game’s difficulty is one reason it isn’t more widely played.
“It can be somewhat difficult to learn,” he says. “It’s a bit of a challenge.”
Unlike faster-moving sports, physical strength has little to do with winning.
“It’s very much a finesse sport,” he says. “Hitting true is key. When you’re shooting a ball 100 feet away, it takes some pretty good skill.”
He compares the game to billiards, due to the need for precise hitting, and chess, because of the strategy involved.
“You play three and four moves ahead,” he says. “Learning the strategy is the most challenging part.”
Yoder plays with a group of about 30 regular croquet players in the Dallas area, usually at a court at the Wyndham Anatole Hotel. And while he says he loves the camaraderie of the close-knit group, he takes the sport quite seriously.
That seriousness has clearly paid off. In 2003 he became the Texas State Croquet Champion after competing for the honor in Houston.
Being good at croquet hasn’t made Yoder rich. There is no prize money in the sport; the players simply play for trophies and bragging rights.
It has, however, made him an inventor.
A big reason he was state champion, Yoder says, is his equipment.
The croquet mallet he uses is his own design, and it’s unlike any other mallet in the world.
“All other croquet mallets are still built the same way they were in the 1800s,” he says.
“It’s the first to have two grips, a curved shaft, a front-weighted aluminum head and G-10 phenolic resin playing faces.”
G-10 phenolic resin, just in case you didn’t know, is an ultra-hard material used on the tips of some missiles.
High-tech materials notwithstanding, Yoder says the key to his unique mallet lies in its grips.
“The key difference between it and every other mallet in the world is that it has two grips,” he says. “The purpose is to level the shoulders. You want everything balanced as perfectly as possible, and as soon as you put one hand on another one, you’ve unbalanced one of your shoulders and arms.”
Such innovation in a sport that has seen little change for hundreds of years isn’t always welcome.
“Some people think it’s illegal, and my first one was, but this one’s legal,” he says.
And he should know. He has spent years researching the rules of mallet designs, going through several prototypes before developing this one.
“It’s taken me about four years,” he says. “This is the fourth version of it.”
And the comments and jokes he hears when playing? They don’t bother him.
“While I like winning, the most fun is when I pull this beast out of my bag. Even the most mature players turn into slacked-jawed yokels.”
Yoder has used the mallet exclusively for the past two years, though he has been told he’ll have some trouble if he ever makes the big time.
“I’ve been warned that if I started beating people at the national level, they’ll declare it illegal,” he says. “That’s a battle I don’t look forward to.”
But Yoder plans on swinging a mallet, whether this one or another, for years to come.
“I’ll play this as long as I can,” he says. “I’ve played 14-year-old kids and have been beaten by 60- to 70-year-old women. You can pretty much play at any age.”