I met Mike McDonnell at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago at Meadowood Resort in St. Helena for my first and only croquet lesson.
McDonnell — the only full-time professional croquet instructor on the West Coast — met me with gleeful pep and was ready to play. It didn’t matter that I had never played American six-wicket croquet, the championship version of the popular backyard sport: McDonnell was ready to show me how to hold the mallet, hit the ball and play a lawn sport that traces its roots to Victorian England.
First, dress to play. Like tennis, wear all-white clothing. McDonnell donned a white polo, white shorts, white sweater, white baseball cap and white K-Swiss tennis shoes.
Second, remember you’re never supposed to break a sweat when you play croquet.
Third, master holding the mallet and your grip.
When McDonnell handed me my mallet, I was surprised how heavy it was: heftier than a field hockey stick, but lighter than a sledge hammer.
In terms of holding the mallet, you need to create a triangle: Plant your feet about hip distance apart with the ball making the top of the pyramid. You hold the top of the mallet with your left hand — knuckles on top — and grip your right hand below. Then, swing the mallet between your legs like a pendulum and hit the ball. “Don’t use your wrists!” I was told. Use your arms to swing the ball. And, like putting, always look down until you are completely done hitting the ball.
Ready to play
Once I adjusted to this grip-swing-hit technique — which could take a lifetime to master — the game, which started in the 1870s when women could play alongside men, begins.
The object is to hit the ball through the wicket. There are four balls — red, yellow, black and blue — known as ketchup-and-mustard versus the bruises. The bruises always go first, and, even if the games is played with only two people, all four balls are in play.
As soon as one ball goes through the wicket, the game moves on to the next wicket. What is interesting — and a bit devious — about this version of croquet is it encourages you to hit your opponent’s ball away from the wicket.
At Meadowood, the resort has a four-quadrant lawn on which 64 people can play croquet at the same time. As McDonnell told me, croquet is for everyone — from age 8 to 108 — and in Napa, this lawn sport can be enjoyed with the area’s social libations (read: wine).
IF YOU GO
What: Jerry Stark Memorial Croquet Lawns at Meadowood
Where: 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena
Phone: (707) 963-3646
On the Web: www.meadowood.com
Croquet lesson at Meadowood
$30 per person
To play croquet at Meadowood, you need to be a hotel guest. Lawn fees for hotel guests are $10 per person. An hourlong lesson, which is mandatory before you can use the lawn, is $30 per person.
Croquet and dinner with Napa winemaker Mike Grgich
$187 per person
On Oct. 21, visitors can join Vintner Hall of Fame inductee Miljenko “Mike” Grgich for a winemaker dinner at Meadowood. The evening begins at 5 p.m. on the resort’s championship croquet lawns with Grgich Hills wines paired with hors d’oeuvres. Resident croquet pro Mike McDonnell will give a short beginner’s lesson before inviting guests to play a match.
— Kathleen Jay
BY THE NUMBERS
4 Balls used in playing six-wicket croquet
105 Length in feet of standard croquet court
84 Width in feet of standard croquet court