A dilly of a sport


Many residents of the Lowcountry are getting hooked on pickles, but it’s not the kind you find in a jar. It’s the growing sport of pickleball, a more forgiving cousin of tennis seasoned with a few other sports to create something truly unique.

In the Lowcountry, Sun City Hilton Head is ground zero for the burgeoning pickleball scene.  Sun City’s club started in 2005 with fewer than 100 members and has grown to more than several hundred participants. Its members participate in tournaments around the state and around the southern region.

Sun City has 12 community pickleball courts, 8 of which are lighted, making it the premiere spot for the sport in the Lowcountry. But the appeal of this unique hybrid sport has spread quickly, reaching an enthusiastic base on Hilton Head Island.

B. C. Huselton is one of the volunteer organizers at the Island Recreation Center on Hilton Head, and he’s seen pickleball’s popularity explode first-hand.

Typically 35 members of the Hilton Head pickleball club participate weekly but as many as 50 participants have participated in a tournament. His group transforms the center's six basketball courts into pickleball courts by using portable nets and chalk to draw the boundary lines. They use six nets, which allow 24 people to play at a time.

Usually played as a doubles game, pickleball players use wood or graphite paddles, similar to racquetball paddles, to hit a small plastic ball across the net. Depending on how you choose to play it, pickleball can be a leisure activity or a great way to work up a sweat.

“You can get an incredible workout in one hour,” Huselton said. “It’s a much more forgiving sport than tennis.’’

Because of this forgiveness, Huselton said, players can participate at different levels, enjoy the game and not feel overwhelmed.

Pickleball is not only a great form of exercise; but it's also a great social outlet. Players have a good time and meet new friends. And it's not just local residents who show up to play. Visitors from all across the country stop in for a game of pickleball while on Hilton Head.

Plus, it gives the Rec Center a chance to get a little more use out of its basketball courts.

“It is a realistic approach to using under utilized facilities,” he added, referring to the use of basketball courts while kids are in school.

In addition to the Rec Center, some of Hilton Head’s famed resorts have started getting in on the action. The Palmetto Dunes Tennis Center recently added pickleball to the line-up of activities, with four pickleball courts located right in front of the Tennis Pro Shop.

The center is attractive for vacationers because it rents out courts by the hour and has special walk-on rates. It also offers several different levels of pickleball clinics for people of all ages,

While pickleball is growing by leaps and bounds today, it has its roots back 50 years ago.

The story goes that after playing golf one summer Saturday in 1965, Joel Pritchard, a congressman from Washington State, and Bill Bell, a successful businessman, returned to Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island, WA (near Seattle) to find their families sitting around with nothing to do.

The property had an old badminton court, so Pritchard and Bell looked for some badminton equipment and could not find a full set of rackets. They improvised and started playing with ping-pong paddles and a perforated plastic "whiffle" ball.

At first they placed the net at badminton height of 60 inches and volleyed the ball over the net. As the weekend progressed, the players found that the ball bounced well on the asphalt surface and soon the net was lowered to 36 inches.

The following weekend, Barney McCallum was introduced to the game at Pritchard’s home. Soon, the three men created rules, relying heavily on badminton. They kept in mind the original purpose, which was to provide a game that the whole family could play together.

By 1990, pickleball was being played in all 50 states — indoors and outdoors, in high school gyms and senior centers and in leagues and tournaments with official nets, balls and racquets. The official pickleball Association, USAPA, was chartered as a non-profit corporation in 2005.

Currently, the sport of pickleball is exploding in popularity with well over 2,000 locations on the USAPA’s Places to Play map and over 400,000 players.

Pickleball’s name is derived from the Pritchard family’s maritime pursuits. Frank’s wife, Joan, who was a competitive rower on the island. She sometimes referred to the “pickle boat,” as the slowest vessel in a race.

An ironic name, given the speed with which this unique hybrid sport has spread.