If you’re late to the pickleball phenomenon, you have a chance to see what all the buzz is about and watch world-class competition on Hilton Head Island this month.
The Palmetto Dunes Tennis and Pickleball Center will play host to one of the sport’s biggest events of the year, the Association of Pickleball Professionals Hilton Head Open, taking place Oct. 13-17.
Palmetto Dunes hosted the tournament last year as well, as the facility at the epicenter of the island tennis explosion has been equally innovative at the forefront of the growth of pickleball.
“We are honored to host a stop on the APP Tour,” said John Kerr, Palmetto Dunes’ Director of Tennis and Pickleball. “As we are working hard to create a world-class pickleball center, attracting such a prestigious event lets us know we are heading in the right direction.”
The tournament will be co-hosted by top-ranked pros Sarah Ansboury and Pat Smith. Ansboury, Palmetto Dunes’ director of pickleball instruction, has traveled the country in an RV playing tournaments and teaching others how to teach pickleball to all levels of players.
“Like a lot of folks, she got here and found a lot of reasons to stay and she’s been so important to our growth,” Kerr said of Ansboury. “We began this buildup of our pickleball facility six years ago and we have seen such amazing growth in the love and passion for playing.”
The inclusion as a stop on the 18-tourney tour is just the latest step forward for an ever-growing pickleball obsession in the Lowcountry. It is a sport that many call a mega version of ping pong. The game is played with paddles the size of a racquetball racquet with the hitting surface of a ping pong paddle. The balls have the consistency of a larger, more solid whiffleball with more holes.
The Hilton Head Island Pickleball Club, a group run in conjunction with the Island Rec Center, boasts more than 300 members and administers meetups and leagues on 11 courts around the island.
The group has been carving out space on pre-existing basketball and tennis courts, including its courts off of Adrianna Lane, a spot that HHIPC president Alex Cruden says attracts some of the higher-ranked amateurs.
Cruden said those 11 courts had more than 11,000 hours of use over the past year by both club members and the general public. Town officials have said that the creation of a 24-court pickleball public facility is a priority as part of an ongoing multi-million-dollar parks and recreation renovation plan.
Town Council, Parks and Recreation Board members and Town Manager Marc Orlando are currently assessing how to best use more than $4 million in funds set aside for projects at Crossings Park and Chaplin Community Park. They are simultaneously moving forward with the creation of a mid-island park and trying to assess the best use of each of these spaces.
While Chaplin seems to be the logical landing spot for the pickleball center, Cruden said his crew will be happy with any location.
“We’re just glad that the town has made pickleball a priority. The growth has been amazing, we’re doing a lot with a little right now. To have a dedicated facility on the horizon is exciting for all of us, and so needed,” he said.
HHIPC members participated in the amateur draw of the APP Hilton Head Open last year and Cruden expects at least six members in the draw this year.
“It’s so exciting to see this level of play taking place in our own backyard,” Cruden said. “Palmetto Dunes does a first-class job with the tournament.”
Hilton Head is a “golden ticket qualifier” for amateurs and professionals hoping to play in the Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships to be held Dec. 6-14 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden near Palm Springs, Calif., and the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in April 2022 in Naples, Fla.
Players earn ranking points at tournaments throughout the year, with the top 20 in 12 different men’s, women’s singles, doubles and mixed adult and senior categories awarded automatic entry into the year-end Nationals event.
But if you win your division at Hilton Head, you get the “golden ticket” entry into both the Nationals and the Open. Hilton Head is the last of the eight majors on the APP and World Pickleball Rankings calendar.
Players will be battling for a $60,000 purse, part of more than $700,000 in prize money available across the 18 APP tourneys in the U.S. and Europe in 2021. The tour is doubling its total prize purse to $1.4 million and increasing to 31 total tournaments in 2022.
“We began with 350 players last year and I think the pros that came in spread the word that we have a world-class facility with an amazing island backdrop,” Kerr said of the tourney being elevated to a major “golden ticket” event with more than 950 entrants this year. “It’s like the PGA players that come in. You want to bring your family, make a vacation of it. And we put on a top-notch event that matches the level of competition.”
The tour’s growth mirrors the broadening appeal of the sport nationwide. The USA Pickleball Association has seen a 1,000-percent increase in membership since 2013 to more than 42,000 members today. The group estimates a more than 21 percent growth in players in 2020 alone.
While exact numbers are not available to track local growth, both town officials and local pickleball experts have said Lowcountry player growth has far exceeded the national average.
Players are ranked similarly to the United States Tennis Association rankings, with skill level ratings from 1.0 to 5.0.
Palmetto Dunes has been a regular setting for players looking to increase their rankings, with daily round robins and clinics for players of all levels that attract up to 100 players at a time.
“It’s just a fun sport. It’s multi-generational. We love our tennis community, but you look at a tennis court and you see seriousness and folks getting mad at themselves over shots. There’s just laughter and fun competitiveness at those pickleball courts,” Kerr said.
The resort was named the 2020 Pickleball Resort of the Year by Racquet Sports Industry Magazine and Ansboury was named Professional Pickleball Registry’s 2020 Member of the Year.
Stadium seat tickets will be sold onsite for $10 per day to watch the action. For more information, visit pickleballtournaments.com and search for “Hilton Head Pickleball Open.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.