There is no sweeter sound than that of a bowling ball being walloped by a sledgehammer. It usually makes a nice, loud, bumper cars–like blonk, followed by the polite singsong assessments of bearish Nordic-American men.
“That’s a tough lie there,” comes the uniquely accented chorus. (Think Fargo, with less bloody wood chipper.) “Right under the Versa.”
A 14-pound ball has rolled to a stop directly beside the right rear tire of my parked compact rental vehicle.
Up saunters Kent. He’s a burly, flannel-wearing fella with a Moses-caliber graying beard and perfectly round spectacles. In one hand, he clutches a beer. In the other, he’s dragging a sledgehammer.
Like Jeff, Steve and Dave, my other companions this afternoon on a ranch in an undisclosed location in southern Minnesota, Kent is the sort of guy who would have no problem rigging a four-bedroom house for plumbing immediately after downing a liter of schnapps.
In order to hit a par-3 on this “hole” — a trash can atop a hill next to his garage — he’s going to need some torque.
He measures out a complicated angle reaching under the car’s bumper, rears back and swings the bludgeon behind him for maximum force. I suddenly find myself wishing that I had sprung for the $8-a-day comprehensive insurance.
Ah, the perks of being a columnist for American Way. In the spectrum of manliness, my personal dial is sadly closer to Don Knotts than to Don Johnson. I live in Florida and wear a down jacket when it’s 60 degrees. I prefer to kill cockroaches not with my boots but with thrown dictionaries.
Yet here I am, participating in such a ruggedly virile activity as blonking bowling balls with a device usually used to build railroads, in a state where it’s considered acceptable to chase your sack of cheese curds with something called a bacon mint.
I traveled to Minnesota because I heard rumors of an even more Ron Swanson–esque event happening on this ranch: The Man Croquet Championship of the Free World.
It’s a daylong tournament of croquet — that sport of haughty Brits and ironic hipsters — but played with sledgehammers, bowling balls and giant rebar wickets on a frozen pond, in the brutal dead of winter, when the temperature dips to –20 degrees.
Kent and I have struck a bargain. In order to gain entry into the mystical world of Man Croquet, I agree to forgo last names and keep the precise location of his ranch a secret. The reason for Kent’s hesitancy: “I only have one bathroom in the house.”
When I arrive at Kent’s ranch, much of which he built with his own hands, he shows me the de facto Man Croquet Hall of Fame in his garage: smashed bowling balls mounted on broken doors or on pieces of corkboard. He’s been holding the tournament — in which a good number of women play — every year since 2006.
“It’s become the local social event of the winter,” says Kent: “Everybody comes wearing their Sunday Carhartts.”
Kent wasn’t the first to think of playing croquet with sledgehammers and bowling balls: A wacky cadre in Portland, Ore., does it while wearing frilly costumes. But he’s likely the first to play it on ice.
Kent credits “liquid inspiration.” I soon see how that concept works. Since I’m visiting before the deep freeze, it’s far too balmy for Man Croquet on ice. So the four of us gather around a worktable in his shed, guzzle Michelob Golden Light and discuss, among other topics, how unmanly pomegranates are.
Then the idea gradually dawns on all of us: Man Golf. It’s the new fall sport. We’ll use various targets around Kent’s ranch as the nine holes.
Unsurprisingly, these guys are extremely skilled with sledgehammers and bowling balls. Kent makes that aforementioned par with nary a dent on my rental car’s fender.
After taking a few extremely ineffectual whacks on the first few holes, I, too, start to get the hang of it. Then something glorious happens: I take a sizable chunk out of a bowling ball with my sledgehammer.
I put the shard in my breast pocket for posterity and swig my beer. One day, I think, I’ll show this to my kids and tell them that, for one wonderful day, their father was manly.
But my short-lived Minnesotan residency is revoked when I go to mark my lie so the guy after me can putt. In place of my bowling ball, I throw down the first coin I dig from my pocket: a Sacagawea dollar.
“Ooh!” coos Jeff. “Miami guys mark their lie with a dollar!”