Now 54 and clad in all white, he shrugs his shoulders and smiles. “Yeah, I like to be different,” says Stark from the grounds of Meadowood, an elegant Napa Valley resort where he’s been the resident pro for the past two decades. He may not have been the first autoworker to take his job and shove it, but he’s surely the only one who has found a new life in croquet. And as congenial a fellow as Stark may be (one friend calls him a gentle giant), he’s taken the game by storm. He’s currently the seventh top-ranked player in the United States and is ranked 56th in the world. He has won five national titles and has even earned a spot in the United States Croquet Association’s Hall of Fame.
There’s a Hall of Fame for croquet? The game we’ve all played with bent wire wickets and chipped balls in lumpy backyards? Well, not exactly. There’s that version, which Stark calls the kids’ game. Then there’s the adult version, which is played on a regulation court (105 feet by 84 feet with a perfectly manicured grass surface), uses sturdy metal wickets and pricey custom mallets, and has precise rules for both U.S. and international play. The game basics include scoring 26 points by hitting two one-pound balls clockwise through a series of six wickets and back again before pegging out. This is the game that has changed Stark’s life and has sent him around the globe to compete against some of the best players from England, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Stark has worked hard to get to this point. He admits somewhat sheepishly that he played croquet nonstop during his first six months in Arizona and didn’t even think about finding a job. His girlfriend, who eventually joined him from Kansas City and became his wife, had her doubts. “But I knew he had a passion for it and it was something he had to do,” says Donna Stark, who also recalls that Jerry and his hometown buddies would sometimes even play croquet in the snow. “It’s like I got a flu that just never went away,” adds Jerry Stark. “I guess it’s the competitiveness of it.”
To get a handle on Stark’s curious obsession, consider that in more than 20 years of tournament play, he’s won an estimated grand total of $16,000 in prize money. Croquet is not exactly a road to riches; this is a game you play for the love of it. For the first several years in Phoenix, Stark tried working different jobs to pay his bills, including one as a sales rep for a paint company and another selling signs. How did those work out? “I’m not a salesman,” Stark says, laughing.