The sport of championship croquet has always been played in the moneyed locales of Palm Beach, Bermuda and the Hamptons; it generally has been a passion of the privileged, a byword of the beautiful people. But Archie and Mark Burchfield, two good ol' boys from Kentucky, have given a whole new look to what many consider—along with polo—the stuffed shirt of American sports.
Last September, at the United States Croquet Association National Doubles Championship in New York City, the Burchfields scored one of the biggest upsets in the history of the game. After qualifying in the Southern Regional in Pinehurst, N.C., Archie, 45, a tobacco farmer from Stamping Ground, Ky. (pop. 600), and his son, Mark, 20, edged Palm Beach realtor Archie Peck, a four-time singles champ, and his partner, Jack R. Osborn, the association's president, to win the title.
Tobacco farmers fit no known croquet niche. During the Roaring '20s—and in the less boisterous '30s and '40s, for that matter—members of the New York literary set were forever dressing up and dashing off to one Hampton or another for a go at the game. Darryl F. Zanuck, often known in croquet circles as "The Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang," is generally thought to have popularized the game in Hollywood through matches on his magnificent private court. Moss Hart said of Zanuck, "He has the true croquet spirit. He trusts no one but himself; never concedes—no matter how far behind he may be—and hates his opponents with an all-enduring hate." Sam Goldwyn had two sand-trapped courts constructed on his Beverly Hills estate so that George Sanders and Louis Jourdan, among others, could compete under the most arduous circumstances.
And Averell Harriman once solved the problem of a mid-match snowstorm by hiring eight men with plows, shovels and a tractor to clear his backyard course.
Stamping Ground has no such glamorous history. It had been a whiskey-producing town, but in 1955 the distillery closed. "It's rural," says Burchfield, whose 600-acre farm is located just outside of town. "But we do have a bank, a church and a couple of filling stations."
The Burchfields' R.F.D. mailing address was not the only reason they made news at the nationals. Their country clothes, accents and Archie's intuitive understanding of the game made folks notice them. "I know exactly what's going to happen three, four shots ahead," he says. "What color. How close. Everything. Most of the game is played from the shoulders up anyway. I don't really need to practice anymore."
Championship croquet is to lawn croquet as chess is to checkers. It's a complex game played on a huge grass court that measures 105 feet by 84 feet. The mallets and balls are heavier than the backyard models. Six wickets and one wooden stake are placed in a prescribed layout. There are always four balls on the court. (In doubles a player plays one ball, in singles he plays two.) Each ball must circumnavigate the course twice, and earns one point for each wicket run. Then it must tap against the middle stake for an additional point. A game is 26 points and is won by the first player to complete the course. But there's also a time limit—whoever has the most points when time is called, wins.
The rules of play are so abstruse, covering "dead" and "alive" balls, "cleaning" shots, etc., that even the elder Burchfield had a hard time mastering them all. Says Peck, "I remember one point during the Southern Regionals when Archie sat right down on the court, put his foot on his ball and said, 'Nobody's taking any more shots until somebody explains this rule to me.' And it was explained." The explanation didn't help much, though. Peck beat Burchfield 22-21 for the singles title.
Rule book aside, the Burchfields' New York victory was even more remarkable because they were obliged to use lighter mallets with handles half the size of the kind they're accustomed to using while playing in Kentucky. It was something like playing Wimbledon with a racquet-ball racquet, but in croquet such mallets are not uncommon. Archie Burchfield has another disadvantage, although he probably wouldn't call it that. He practices not on a grass course but on a hand-packed clay course, one just like the kind he learned on in Kentucky. "I was really amazed the Burchfields played as well as they did," says Peck.
Archie wasn't. Not after the lesson he learned behind the local church 21 years ago. "Most of the menfolk would meet there every day to play croquet," he says. "Every day, when I'd walk by, they'd yell, 'Archie, you going to play today?' Well, one day I did. They beat me unmercifully. They never stopped laughing, neither." But Burchfield had the last laugh.
"I went home that night and told my wife, Betty, 'They made me mad today.' So I hunted up a mallet and practiced alone for two weeks. After I won the rematch, local folks didn't want to play me much anymore."
Soon that was the attitude of the rest of Kentucky, too. In the last 13 years Burchfield has won the state singles title seven times and finished second twice, and Kentucky is a state so uncommonly competitive in croquet that no doubles team has won back-to-back state titles in the last 25 years. In fact, the game—Kentuckians play a version that's closer to lawn than championship croquet—is so popular there that it's not even considered a rich folks' sport. "I can win the national title easier than I can win the state," Archie says. "A Kentucky game is almost like war."
At the Nationals, Burchfield proved he can compete on any level, despite adversity. His regular doubles partner of 1'2 years was away on business, so Burchfield drafted Mark, a novice "but a pretty good athlete," by his dad's description. Says Peck, "Archie would say, 'Come on down here, boy, and hit this ball over there.' Mark didn't know much about the rules, but he sure could shoot the eyes out of the ball at 80 feet."
These days, croquet club doors that once slammed shut now open gracefully to the Burchfields, and Archie can laugh when he remembers the time that the upper crust tried to make him feel like a crumb. "I tried to get into the restaurant of this club in Palm Beach," he says. "I was wearing a brand-new pair of khaki britches and a $20 Levi's shirt. I can't dress no better than that. But they told me I couldn't come in because I wasn't wearing whites. I pleaded and pleaded. Finally, they let me come in the back way. But as soon as I got inside, a woman said, 'Even though you're in, they're just going to throw you out.' They didn't. But it took them 45 minutes to serve me."
Peck believes, as do many of his contemporaries, that croquet is in desperate need of personalities like the Burchfields. "Archie is the greatest thing that has ever happened to this sport," says Peck. "The social stigma, that black tie and sneakers image, was getting oppressive, and it hurt the game. Croquet is a sport. It's meant to be played by everyone. I'll play with Archie anyplace, at any time."
Peck will get his chance this weekend when the U.S. National Team, of which both Peck and Archie Burchfield are members, challenges Canada and Bermuda in a three-team competition at the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club. "They think they can beat us," says Burchfield. "I don't believe anyone can do that. They just don't know how good we are. Or, for that matter, just who we are."