Croquet is showing up on college campuses.
The old-fashioned game of hitting a ball through narrow wickets with a mallet -- a game that made its way from the lush lawns of the British aristocracy in the 18th century to the estates of wealthy Americans in the 19th, and to America's backyards in the 20th -- has been dusted off, neatly honed, and brought up to date.
In the past five years private clubs, schools, churches, retirement groups, inner-city communities, and resorts have begun featuring it. The number of clubs has grown from five in 1977 to more than 60 countrywide, according to the United States Croquet Association.
But the latest group to take up the challenge of the old game are college students. It's the strategy of the game that's so appealing, they say. ''It's a thinking man's game played outdoors,'' explains Bryan Simmons of Memphis, Tenn., a Yale junior who tops his slacks and blazer outfit with a traditional boater for a game. Harvard and Brandeis students have formed clubs. So have students at Boston University, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, the University of Virginia, the University of Tennessee, Idaho State, Northwestern, the University of California at Los Angeles, and Occidental College.
Brown University is the latest to field a club. Yale's 18-member team recently achieved club sport status from its university athletic department, which means it has a budget to help ease the cost of equipment and travel.
Until a year ago many of these students had never heard of the game, they say. They'd never known the backyard game their parents knew.
''In fact, some were a bit leery of it at first,'' admits Brandeis captain David Silverstein, a senior. ''But once they get the feel of it and know the strategy that's involved, they go for it.''
His club of 12 students, one of the first to be organized last year, is spoiling for competition, and members are beating the bush to find a sponsor - an airline or local industry -- to help defray expenses. (Cost of a Championship Croquet Set can run as high as $1,020. A set contains six wickets, four championship mallets with cord-bound octagonal hickory handles and cane-spliced shafts, Eclipse composition balls, hoops, winning peg, clips, flags, boundary pegs, ball marking pegs, smasher, and a book of rules.)
Robin Urban, a native of Australia and Yale captain, likes to describe the game as a combination of billiards, chess, golf, and war. ''Aggressiveness and well-planned defensive play pay off. Students like that,'' he notes.
Harvard captain Martha C. Eddison of Lexington, Mass., sees it as appealing to the student who likes something different. ''It's a showoff-y game,'' she says. ''You have to be good with trick shots. A fraction of an inch becomes very important. It's certainly not a game you play just once and forget. It's intriguing.''
Croquet was banned in Boston in the late 1800s because, the city fathers said , it was ''calculated to bring out all the evil passions of humanity.'' Nevertheless, it held a lifelong fascination for the late Alexander Woollcott, noted author and drama critic, who started playing in his student days at Hamilton College. In one match with comedian Harpo Marx, another avid player, Harpo needed only to hit Woollcott's ball to claim victory, but there was a maple tree between the two balls. Harpo dragged out an old auto tire, sawed it in half, and put it around the tree so his ball came out the other side, smack into Woollcott's ball. Alex, furious, stomped off, hurling abuse at Harpo.
Today's students join an elite company of croquet fans. Former Ambassador W. Averill Harriman once hired eight men with snowplows, shovels, and a tractor to clean off his course after a snowstorm during a Thanksgiving party so he and his guests could play. And while he was ambassador to Russia, he saw to it that the Soviets set up a croquet course for his use.
A prime mover in promoting croquet at colleges these days is a diminutive young professor, Xandra Kayden of Cambridge, a member of the political science department at Brandeis University. She predicts a ''golden age of croquet'' when games will draw dozens, if not hundreds, of spectators. She insists croquet should be taught as a life sport at schools and colleges.
''It can be enjoyed regardless of age or sex,'' she explains, adding that ''there appears to be a trend these days toward such activity at all levels of education because of the high cost of sports like football and basketball.''
She and Jack R. Osborn, national champion and president of the USCA, who retired six years ago from his industrial-design business to form the association and become its unsalaried president, see a future involving croquet camps, electronic scoreboards, cable TV coverage, and eventually, play for pay.