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National Croquet Center's
"soft opening" is a hit

by Bob Alman,
photos by Ted Prentis
Posted December 8, 2000
Related Links
National Croquet Center Website


We opened the lawns on December 2, 2000, to rave reviews. From the 40 neighbors who came to play in our first public "Introduction to Croquet. From visiting USCA croquet players. From the players in the Florida State Regional, the first USCA title tournament at the new Center. And later in the week, from the press.
Raves. Yes, I know this is what you expect to hear from a guy whose official title is "Marketing and Community Relations Director." And we're not sparing the hype, either, such as "the world's largest dedicated croquet lawn."

The press likes to write about the biggest, the first, the most. That's what we're giving them. And it's all true - with just a little gloss around the edges.

The excitement is contagious. The legendary Archie Burchfield and his wife Betty came to Florida for a funeral, but Betty told me, "We changed our reservations. We couldn't go back without seeing the new Center."

They were not disappointed. The very absence of the clubhouse – still lacking final construction permits from the City - seems to magnify the space. The perfectly flat lawn goes on, and on, for 500 feet in both dimensions, broken only by three temporary tents down the center that provide sun shelter and space for socializing.
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Dynamic duo: Bob Alman (left), Acting Director of Marketing and Community Relations, is living in Palm Beach for several months helping to launch the new Center; Archie Peck, Director of Croquet, seeing the lawns filled with players in two separate events in its first day, commented, "It doesn't get any better than this."

Dick and Mary Knapp - recent arrivals from England - came to the opening and joined the National Croquet Club on the spot. They volunteered to help out with the public INTRODUCTION course, and they have been back to play almost every day since then.

President Brian Gould brought down to the lawn opening a big contingent from PGA National - 12 miles up the road and until now the largest croquet facility in America. Joining in the first "Daily Draw", one of the club stalwarts pronounced the lawns - a mixture of Bermuda and winter rye - "a little rough, but perfectly playable." The redoubtable John Phaneuf - one of Florida's top players - is telling distant croquet friends, "It's really open, and it's great!"

People drive up through raw sand to the edge of the lawns, step out of their cars, look around, and say, "Wow!"

It's not really what they see that impresses as much as the bare outline of the future in front of them: the possibility of using this great facility as a foundation for building our sport both locally and nationally.

In the first week, the foundation is already being laid..

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Tennis pro Dave Bent directs the USCA's Junior Croquet program. High school students learn golf croquet on their own school grounds, then play their intermural tournaments on the lawns of the National Croquet Center in early May - setting the stage for an expanded summer program for teens.
One of the early visitors was Dave Bent, a tennis pro and now a top croquet player who lives and works in Gulf Stream, a fifteen minutes down the turnpike to the south. He's the director of the USCA's Junior Croquet program to be launched in the spring - followed by an expanded summer program for teens. If he gets his way, we'll discover and train teenagers who will grow up to lead the United States to victory in the 2008 MacRobertson Shield.

On Thursday morning, 12 West Palm Beach rec and park athletic directors came out for a two-hour demonstration - a launch pad for joint programs that give City departments and programs limited access to the Center's facilities - especially in the summer, when most of the USCA population has fled to cooler climes.. The same day, a representative of the "Concierge Network" came out to inspect the Center and said of Golf Croquet, "This could be very hot in Florida for the hotel trade." Yes, that's the idea.

December 2nd was a "soft opening," because we didn't want to show off a Center not yet at its best. Many improvements are to be made in the next month alone - not the least of which is the huge "Festival Tent" that will serve as the meeting and dining center while the clubhouse is being constructed.

In the meantime, we are learning to make various and creative use of the Utility Building, where we've already hosted a sit-down luncheon for 50. The cavernous 40 x 100 space is being prepared as temporary quarters for the USCA staff, moving in by late December.

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Assisted by USCA office manager Shereen Hayes, Chuck Steuber cuts the ceremonial cake. About 50 donors, National Croquet Club members, and local croquet notables came for the first "Daily Draw" on the lawns and a buffet lunch in the Utility Building. In the background, a corner of the building is being constructed for office space.

But we couldn't keep the lawn opening a secret. Michael Straus of the Palm Beach Daily News spilled the beans. By Wednesday, reporters and photographers from the Palm Beach Post (the big local paper) and the Sun Sentinel were all over the property. Ron Hayes in the Palm Beach Post put a new twist on the standard press treatment of croquet. The headline was "With new West Palm Center, croquet seeks new popularity." The subhead said, "New mallet swingers are being recruited with free lessons and low-cost memberships."

Channel Five television followed with the first television coverage on Thursday night. We only hope this "premature exposure" doesn't detract from our Official Opening in late January, when we put our best foot forward in the 8-day Launch Week Festival.

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13-year-old Mike Weir gets some basic instruction from Norma Truman.
Between now and then, the National Center will improve with each passing day. New plantings, better grass, more amenities, and a fully equipped office staff on site. In the interim, the professional staff of the Center will be hosting numerous two-hour demonstration events to show off the Golf Croquet Lawn Party format that we hope will provide a large share of the Center's revenue in the future. Event planners are the target market. We want them to discover the Golf Croquet Lawn Party as the event planner's dream - the hottest trend in the leisure world. (That’s what it says on the cover of the color brochure now being printed for distribution to hotel group sales managers, event planning companies, and the incentive travel industry.)

Some will insist that the small sport of croquet cannot – maybe even should not - be popularized But who would have thought, just two years ago, that the USCA/CFA would have in the year 200l the largest croquet facility in the world?

It can happen. Numerous marketing initiatives will be created and implemented through the National Croquet Center. Some will fail, some will succeed. You'll hear about them all, we won't keep them a secret. The ones that succeed will become models to be replicated in other places. According to CFA president Chuck Steuber, that is the purpose of the National Croquet Center and the ultimate test of its success.

For more than century, croquet players have been talking about what could be done and what should be done to promote our under-appreciated sport. Most of it was just talk. Think of golf in the 20's, think of tennis in the 50's. In the year 2000, croquet in America has a long shot for a new future.

Croquet's grand experiment began December 2, 2000, with the opening of the lawns at the National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.


 
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