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.
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..
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.
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.
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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