Culture // 8 min Read

What’s the Big Dill: Pickleball Takes Over the Bluff

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Jan 04, 2023

If you’ve been paying any sort of attention to sports over the last few years, you’ve heard about the latest court craze: pickleball. Everyone from professional athletes to amateurs are relishing the unconventional and quirky sport that is dominating courts in the Lowcountry (and the world).

But as the sport continues to grow in popularity (with 4.8 million players nationwide, a near 40 percent increase from 2020), some are still wondering what the heck it is….and why the heck it’s named after a vegetable, fruit, and a berry all in one!?

We wanted to get to the bottom of the proverbial pickle jar, so we sat down with Tony Gottlieb, Teaching Professional, Top 25 Professional Pickleball Player, and Palmetto Bluff’s Pickleball Pro (say that five times fast) to learn more about this sport….that has nothing to do with pickles and everything to do with fun.

The Father of Pickleball

It was the summer of 1965, when Joel Pritchard (who served in the United States Congress and as Washington’s lieutenant governor) along with friends Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum, invented the game of pickleball at his summer home on Bainbridge Island, Washington. It’s said that after returning from a game of golf, the gentlemen discovered that their kids were bored; they had attempted to set up badminton, but no one could find the shuttlecock. So, they challenged their kids to devise their own game. Using the badminton court, Pritchard, Bell, and their children began experimenting with different balls and rackets—including table tennis paddles—and invented the game of pickleball.

Pickle What? Why? How?

Pickleball. Face it, it’s just fun to say. And if you talk to any pickleball athletes, it’s also fun to play. But how did the fastest-growing sport in the world get its name?

According to Joel Pritchard’s wife, she named the sport pickleball after the pickle boat—a term used in the sport of rowing—because the sport was created from leftover pieces of equipment from other sports. (A pickle boat is a team of rowers in the sport of crew made up of leftover rowers that were not selected to compete as principal rowers.)

Another theory states that the name was derived from the Pritchard family’s dog, Pickles; however, the family confirmed that the dog came along after the game had already been named, and it was the dog that was named for the game.

Either way, with a momentum that defies its namesake, the sport has taken off—its popularity propelled by how easy it is to learn and how accessible it is for young and old alike. By 1990, pickleball was being played in every state. By 2005, it had its own governing body, the USAPA. In 2021 and 2022, the sport was named “the fastest-growing sport in the United States” by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

A growing interest in the sport is attributed to several factors, including a short learning curve, appeal to a wide range of ages and fitness levels, and low startup costs. (The pandemic also played a pretty big role.)

“I was a tennis pro, but really….I happened to be around a handful of top 10 players in the world during the pandemic. A lot of us were teaching tennis, but weren’t playing that much anymore. So, here comes this giant game of ping pong in a way.”

“The learning curve getting into it can be pretty easy,” says Tony. “It’s very easy to learn; it’s a lot easier to learn than something like tennis. You can be playing within the first hour.”

It’s also the perfect multigenerational sport. “You can be playing with your grandparents, and your son, and your uncle. That’s very common. That’s what’s one of the really attractive things about it. It’s multigenerational. It’s comical. It’s fun,” says Tony.

How Do You Play Pickleball?

Commonly described as a combination of badminton, ping-pong, and tennis, pickleball is formally defined as an “indoor or outdoor racket/paddle sport where two players (singles) or four players (doubles) hit a perforated hollow polymer ball (i.e. fancy name for Wiffle ball) over a 36-inch-high net using solid-faced paddles. Opponents on either side of the net hit the ball back and forth until one side commits a rule infraction.”

It’s played on a badminton-size court (as it was originally on that fateful summer day back in 1965) with a net similar to a tennis net and players using a ping-pong-like paddle and a plastic Wiffle ball. Played as singles or doubles, most people prefer to play doubles.

“It is mostly doubles….that’s what most people like. I like doubles more myself,” says Tony (one of the top singles player in the country). “I don’t like [singles] that much…. because it’s a lot of running.”

Why Pickleball?

A game that is appropriate for players of all ages and skill levels, most players would describe pickleball as a game where they can have fun, get some exercise, and get pretty good fairly quickly. (Tony teaches with the goal of having people playing within the first hour.) Besides being easier to learn than tennis, pickleball is also slower paced (think back to the pickle boat) and there’s less ground to cover; you can almost fit four pickleball courts onto one tennis court.

Pickleball is also very social. A typical doubles game is played to 11, with players encouraged to rotate with other players in a pickup style round robin. In addition, pickup games are popping up at clubs and public parks, with leagues starting to grow as well.

“It’s not uncommon if I’m teaching a class to go grab an extra person if I need one….there’s a big culture of drop-in pickleball,” says Tony. “That’s a big program at Palmetto Bluff….the drop-in program. It’s informal…..[its] socializing…where all levels show up. It’s almost like kids showing up to play pickup sports. You just show up.”

And while informal social play, including pickleball socials (how fun!), rules the courts at the Bluff, you can also find some friendly albeit competitive games as well.

“There is an element that’s becoming very professional where the players are really good,” says Tony. (Yes, MLP: Major League Pickleball teams are a thing. Do the names Tom Brady, Kevin Durant, or Brené Brown ring a bell?)

Who, What, Wear….& Where to Play

You can find Tony, along with six pickleball courts, at Wilson Lawn & Racquet Club at Palmetto Bluff. From informal drop-in games to competitive play to lessons, clinics, and camps for all levels and ages, pickleball is quickly becoming THE place to be (and play!) at the Bluff.

“There’s a lot of drop-in pickleball….[it’s] very inviting, informal social play. Clinics for all levels and ages, pickleball socials

However, before you step foot onto a court, you’ll need the required items necessary to start playing pickleball: a pickleball paddle, ball, and a pair of shoes. While there are varying levels of setups, pickleball is still one of the cheapest sports to get involved with: a beginner pickleball paddle and ball will usually only cost you around $30! And keeping up with the sport isn’t that bad either—once you buy the things you need, pickleball is extremely cheap to sustain.

“The benefit of the game is that…the entry to get into it is very inexpensive,” states Tony.

Let’s start with the pickleball paddle: the tool of the trade, it’s the main piece of equipment that you’ll need to get started. Many open play locations provide pickleball paddles for you to use, but this isn’t a guarantee so make sure you have your own.

When it comes to shoes, any kind of open shoe is unusable in pickleball, and it’s also strongly recommended that you do not wear running shoes when you play pickleball.

“You should have good shoes…for lateral support,” says Tony. (Hint no loafers or Allbirds.)

For clothing, just think tennis. Anything you wear for tennis you can wear on the pickleball court.

Now that you’ve learned what a big “dill” pickleball is, including how to play, and what you need to get started, why not join the other 4.8 million players and try your hand at the growing phenomenon?

If you’re interested in learning how to play pickleball, contact Tony Gottlieb, Palmetto Bluff’s Pickleball Professional at (843) 706-6500….or just make your way over to Wilson Lawn & Racquet Club for some informal socializing on—or off—the courts.

Tony’s goal is simple—it’s about getting friends and families to enjoy a fun and social sport that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and skill levels.

Bottom line: “It’s just a lot of fun.”

Fun fact: In 2022, pickleball was adopted as the official state sport of Washington.

Learn more about the Palmetto Bluff Club, and life on the Bluff.

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