A Bluegrass Farmer Takes on the Bluebloods, as Two Wicket Men Tangle with Mallets Aforethought

updated 09/26/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Okay, sports buffs, it's trivia quiz time. Name the sport whose official Hall of Fame features Harpo Marx, movie producer Darryl Zanuck ("the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang"), diplomat Averell Harriman and writer Alexander Woollcott, who claimed, "My doctor forbids me to play unless I win."

That's right, caller 26, we're talking croquet. Not your backyard, hacking-through-the-pachysandra variety, but the major-league stuff, the aggressively proper game whose seventh annual U.S. National Championship will be played this week in New York's Central Park. At that event croquet's Old Guard could be in for the rudest shock of its life: This year's expected hot matchup pits Palm Beach's own Archibald Peck, a socialite who for the fourth time is national singles champ, against—Jeeves, one feels faint!—an upstart tobacco farmer and good ole boy named Archie Burchfield out of (gasp!) Stamping Ground, Ky.

Before the enormity of the outrage can be comprehended, a bit of history is called for. Called "the Sport of Stings"—psychological scams are part of the game—big-time croquet is played atop an 84' x 105' field of grass groomed within 1/32 inch of its life. It started in England, and the big boys play with one stake and six dauntingly narrow, cast-iron wickets, not nine hoops that look like leftover wire hangers. Crafted from precious lignum vitae wood, the brass-bound mallets have handles hewed from malacca cane—and the balls are cork centered. Imported from England, such a croquet set runs around $1,000.

This kind of croquet is a sport the very rich play at their Palm Beach or Southampton country clubs—folks just like Archie Peck, 47. A dapper, tanned Kirk Douglas look-alike who's "in real estate"—his dad founded the company—Peck is not a wage slave. Married, with four children, he disdains regular business hours, preferring to check in with the office from a phone in his charcoal-gray Mercedes, which may often be found nestled by the croquet court at the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club. A 15-year veteran of the championship croquet circuit, he also participates in other sports. "I wish more people would summon up Archie's image when they think of croquet," sighs Jack Osborn, president and founder of the U.S. Croquet Association. "Archie's a great athlete who plays a mean game of tennis and golf and was probably the best amateur jai-alai player in the country before he took up croquet. He is a competitive surfer, a fine billiards player and the consummate sportsman."

Croquet, though, does funny things to sportsmanship; the game has been compared to war, and Peck, also a consummate gamesman, describes it as "a medley of chess, billiards and backgammon played on grass. You take into account your opponent's ability and personality, and then you maneuver him into mistakes." He adds, with a shark's grin, "I love it."

Meet now Archie Burchfield. His sportswear is denim, not linen; his automotive tastes run not to Mercedes but to International Harvester, and his two clay courts in Stamping Ground (pop.: 600) are not at the club but in his back 40. "Folks in other parts of the country like to say we're hillbillies. We ain't exactly hillbillies," he chuckles. "The hillbillies live to the east of us." But don't be fooled: This Archie has the basic croquet mentality. "In Kentucky, we play for blood," his wife, Betty, says, "and you make a mistake only once." Burchfield and his son Mark won in doubles against Peck and Osborn in 1982, after only eight months of practice in regulation play. Burchfield didn't make the singles finals; later last year, in their only one-on-one meeting, chic Archie beat farmer Archie in double overtime.

Burchfield plays in a tradition that began during the Depression, when "everybody was out of work, and there wasn't nothing to do." After two decades of coping with ad hoc rules, Archie called Osborn and challenged the Eastern elite. Told he needed more experience, he practiced for five more years, and in March 1982 was ready. "The time was right for me," he explains. "I had sowed my fields, and there wasn't much to do except watch the tobacco grow." Hitching a ride in a friend's lettuce truck, Archie and Mark helped unload the produce at 3 a.m., parked across from the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club and snoozed until game time. Then he went to the front gate, dressed in "clean britches and a new $15 Levi's shirt. I thought I was dressed pretty good." But posh croquet is played in whites. "I guess they thought Mark and I were janitors," he says. Refused admittance, he found another entrance where he talked his way in, walloped the club pro and has been striking fear into the croquet establishment ever since.

But can Stamping Ground really take Palm Beach when the chips are down? "Mister Peck may be the finest player in America," Archie B. drawls, "but we Kentuckians aren't easily beat."

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