But even when he lacked a job that fueled his passion, Stark didn’t lose his focus. In 1984, after about a year in Phoenix, he was invited to participate in a top tournament in the wine country of Santa Rosa, California, with leading players from England, Australia, and New Zealand. He didn’t do that well, he says, but he got a taste of the high level of international competition. Over the next few years, Stark began to sharpen his game and was eventually selected for the U.S. team by the United States Croquet Association (USCA) to play internationally. Gradually, by making trips to England and around the United States, Stark grew his reputation. “He’s such a good strategist and tactician,” says Rory Kelley, one of Stark’s former employers and a ranked player who credits Stark with teaching him world-class croquet. “He has an overall understanding of the game -- and a true-blue love of it.”

Then, in 1989, Stark got the call of a lifetime. Meadowood owner Bill Harlan, who had built two pristine regulation courts framed by a stone fence and by towering redwoods and firs, was looking for an assistant croquet pro for his resort. Stark did not hesitate, even though it still seemed crazy to his wife. “My wife thought I was nuts when I told her I was moving from Phoenix for this,” he recalls. Says Donna in self-defense: “It amazed me that he could make a living at it.” Still, how many times does a croquet player get an offer like this? Resident pros at North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort and at the National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, are two of his counterparts in America. “I loved it [from the beginning],” Stark says of the job. “I didn’t feel like I ever wanted to go do anything else.”

Twenty years later, Stark is still Meadowood’s pro, teaching the finer points of croquet to more than 3,000 guests a year and as many as 32 players at a time. It’s a civilized scene along this forested California hillside dotted with wooden cottages: The tones are hushed, the clothes all white, and you can hear the click-click of the balls as they roll and collide on the finely cut lawn.

In a pastoral yet cultivated setting like this, it’s easy to imagine the game’s nineteenth-century European origins: Croquet first became popular in England and then spread to other English-speaking nations. The United States didn’t really join croquet’s grand history until 1977, when the United States Croquet Association was formed. It was then that U.S. players graduated from the simple backyard game to the six-wicket tournament-style game. Today, the USCA includes some 300 member clubs and 3,000 member players.

On this cool Napa Valley day under a crystal-blue sky, Stark hands out equipment and tells a group of 30 guests that the mallets weigh three pounds and the balls -- black, blue, red, and yellow -- are each one pound. He shows them how to grip and swing the mallet. He sends them onto the court for a few minutes to practice hitting; then, he calls them back with this question: “So, does everybody have a grip?” Stark likes to joke with and entertain his groups, even as he looks to add a few converts to the game. “It’s fun to do something you have a passion for,” he tells me later.