Croquet, the friendly game served up at backyard picnics before the hot dogs and potato salad, has gone upscale and found a niche as a sticky wicket of a sport challenging the competitive spirit of the young, old, and genteel.

This is serious croquet - free of rubber-headed mallets, wire wickets wider than beach balls, and unruly tufts of crab grass and weeds. In the last 10 years the sport has grown significantly, attracting a breed of sportsman looking for a respectable way to clean an opponent's clock."It's becoming more of a household word - croquet the sport as opposed to croquet the game," said Anne Frost, membership director for the U.S. Croquet Association. "The difference is like checkers and chess."

The USCA, led by president Jack Osborn, has been at the forefront of promoting the sport, increasing its popularity nationwide. Frost said Osborn founded the USCA in 1977 with five clubs and 60 members. Today, its clubs number around 250, a figure that changes regularly, and the association has some 3,000 members.

"And I'm sure the croquet-playing population is larger than that," Frost said.

The USCA is headquartered at PGA National, a recreational community in the southeast Florida city of Palm Beach Gardens. With five, 105-by-84 tournament courts, including one that doubles as a teaching green, it is the "largest croquet facility in the Western Hemisphere," Osborn said.

Seasoned buffs and raw recruits pad about on grass clipped as low as that on golf course putting greens and aim for the white iron wickets that are, at best, a quarter-inch wider than the brightly colored cork and plastic balls occasionally knocked through them.

Like billiards, the ball has to be knocked with just the right touch. Like chess, there's the constant strategy, the evaluation of future moves. Top flight professionals can play through the entire maze of wickets in one turn if given the chance, so competition is ferocious.

"It's similar to chess, you're thinking five moves ahead. It's tactical, you're trying to outwit your opponent," Frost said. "It's mentally challenging."

In other words, it's not like playing with a $13 discount store set.

"It's much more challenging," Osborn said.

On the edge of the court at tournament matches, onlookers sit in lawn chairs, sip icy drinks and kibitz, murmuring their approval for a particularly well-played shot.

While croquet has something of a formal air, it would be misleading to say players don tuxedos and shimmering evening gowns. They only do that during balls and celebrity matches. Normally, the dress code for USCA tournaments is simple - wear anything. Provided it's white.

And croquet attracts somewhat of a moneyed aficionado. Frost said that among the USCA's 3,000 members, the average household income exceeds $150,000 and that 25 percent of them have a net worth more than $1 million.

Indeed, playing croquet can cost money. Frost said "championship" sets are priced as high as $1,500. A mallet, with a 36-inch leather shaft and brass-bound heads, can go for $240.

"It has an upscale image," she conceded. "And that helps with corporate sponsorship (of tournaments)."

Forster Manufacturing in Wilton, Maine, makes a full line of croquet sets, running in price from $60 to $900. Their USCA-approved Stratford Challenge Set goes for $90 to $110.

Dennis Wittekind, Forster's vice president of marketing and sales, wouldn't divulge sales figures, but said, "The market is growing, probably at a 10 percent clip.

"Croquet is going more toward the sport than the game for kids. Compared to the 1950s, twice as many are sold now," he said, adding that he estimates 250,000 sets were sold nationwide by all manufacturing companies last year.

"People are now getting into the clothing and buying the mallets, not just the sets," he said.

Universities are forming croquet clubs and golf courses have converted putting greens into croquet courts, Frost said. Beginners, she said, can learn croquet and play it at a competent, if novice, level after a relatively short period of time.

"It's not like golf where it can take years and years and years before you can get to where you feel you know what you're doing," Frost said.