Passion for Pickleball | Orange County is enthusiastic for the sport

The pandemic increased the sport’s popularity across Orange County and the nation

Pickleball Feature Orange Coast Magazine

At 7 o’clock on a misty Saturday morning, with the temperature dipping into the low 40s, a Tustin parking lot is quickly filling up. Sleepy folks dressed in sweatsuits and lugging gym bags emerge from their cars. A few minutes later, the early morning calm is shattered by what sounds like a volley of rifle fire. It’s actually the sharp thwack of paddles slamming plastic pickleballs.

Within half an hour, members of the Tustin Pickleball Club fill 10 courts and a dozen people are waiting on benches to play. The sport has exploded in popularity in Orange County, and the Tustin club, based at Sycamore Magnet Academy, is one of the biggest in the region. The immaculate courts—transformed from scruffy, rarely used tennis courts—are filled by members Monday through Saturday mornings from 7 to 10 a.m., then are open to the public. Courts are divided by skill level. Picklers, as pickleball players are known, from throughout Southern

California flock to Tustin. They appreciate the low membership fee—free for the first decade or so, recently raised to $50—the ability to drop in and play without a reservation, and the diverse, friendly crowd.

“The mix of people here is really cool,” says Tracy Morris, one of the first players to arrive Saturday morning. “One day I was playing with a Korean guy, a Black guy, an Indian woman, an Asian woman, and a man in his 80s. I really love the idea of so many people from different walks of life blending together.”

Pickleball Feature Orange Coast Magazine Phil Dunmeyer
Phil Dunmeyer.

Photo by Emily J. Davis.

Many players at the Tustin Club attribute its success to its founder, Phil Dunmeyer, who some players and coaches in Southern California call “Mr. Orange County Pickleball.” Dunmeyer, who wears a shirt emblazoned with PICKLEBALL ASYLUM WARDEN, spends Saturday morning in a whirl of constant motion. He greets arriving members; congratulates players when he spots a skilled shot; welcomes couples from out of town who are looking for a game; fills in when a player is needed; and uses his bullhorn to move picklers to other courts when he spots a mismatch. During moments of repose, he sells his instructional books and hands out copies of a new pickleball magazine.

Dunmeyer, 79, a retired Tustin elementary school principal, says that while the sport has been steadily growing in popularity throughout Orange County for the past decade, the pandemic sparked a dramatic increase. The club grew from 250 members to 2,000 within a year. “It was like a tidal wave,” he says. “People who couldn’t go to the gym or play racquetball or do any other indoor activities were able to play pickleball. Also, it’s by far the easiest sport to learn. There’s instant gratification.”

Pickleball is a mélange of ping- pong, tennis, and badminton. The playing surface is smaller than a tennis court, the net is a few inches lower, the paddles are slightly larger than those used in ping-pong and somewhat square, and the ball is made of perforated plastic. During the past few years, both private clubs in Orange County and city recreational departments have been steadily transforming tennis courts into pickleball courts or building new pickleball facilities. Three years ago, the Tennis Club at Newport Beach transformed two tennis courts into four pickleball courts. There are now 31 pickleball courts, and the club is planning to add another 16. The pickleball membership grew from 75 to more than 1,500 members, with a waiting list of more than 100.

Member Brian Tong says pickleball has an addictive quality. He is so enthusiastic that he follows 11 pickleball podcasts and three YouTube channels. “The day I discovered pickleball was the day I stopped playing racquetball after 30 years,” he says. “That’s how much I enjoyed it. Within a half hour, I knew this was the sport that I wanted to do the rest of my life.”

Because most of the games are doubles, there is a conviviality to the sport that appeals to Tong’s wife, Judy. “In tennis, the court is so big, you can’t really communicate with your opponents. But in pickleball, you can chat with them and compliment them on a good shot. Some people are more competitive than others, but overall, we’ve found that the community of pickleball players are a really nice group of people. That’s something I’ve appreciated.”

There are public courts in more than 20 O.C. cities, from San Clemente to Seal Beach. The Seal Beach Tennis Center, which is a public facility, changed its name two years ago to
the Seal Beach Tennis and Pickleball Center and now has 17 courts. “Court time is hard to get,” says Tim Kelsey, the Seal Beach recreation manager. “About 2,000 people drop in a month. We heard from a lot of people that it’s easier on the body than most sports.”

This is one of the reasons the sport is so popular among seniors, says Joan Brown, president of the pickleball club at Laguna Woods Village, a community of people 55 and older. In the past decade, the club there has grown from 40 to 450 members. “Because of the size of the court, there’s less running around, so there’s less of a chance of falling down. The ball is lighter than a tennis ball, so you can keep it in play easier, and because men and women often play together, it’s very social.”

The game was invented in 1965 when Joel Prichard, a congressman from Washington state, and a friend returned to Prichard’s home on Bainbridge Island after a golf outing. Dismayed that their families were lounging around, bored, they decided to initiate a badminton game because the home had a court. When they couldn’t find a full set of rackets, they started playing with ping-pong paddles and a Wiffle ball. They discovered that the ball bounced well, so they moved the game to asphalt and lowered the badminton net. The next weekend, another friend joined the group, they created a set of rules, and the game soon spread.

There is a raging controversy about the origin of the sport’s name. Some contend it was named after the Prichard family dog, Pickles. Others argue that the derivation stems from a pickle boat in crew, which is composed of random rowers picked from the leftovers of other boats. The United States Pickleball Association, after extensive historical research, has finally settled the contretemps and reported its finding on its website: “We looked for dog records, uncovered photos, and interviewed several people. … Based on evidence, we learned that the dog was born in 1968—three years after pickleball was first played. … Pickleball was not named after the dog, but rather in reference to the local pickle boat races.”

As of 2020, more than 4 million people play the sport in the U.S., an increase of 21 percent from the previous year, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. There are numerous pickleball YouTube channels, podcasts, and books, and a new magazine recently printed its first issue. Several cruise lines have added courts to their ships to appeal to devotees.

While the sport is a low-key diversion for many, pickleball is becoming increasingly competitive. There are professional tournaments across the country, including several in Orange County. Pickleball competitions are aired on CBS Sports Network, ESPN3, and the Tennis Channel. According to a spokeswoman, officials at USA Pickleball are working to include the sport at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

Before the pandemic, the Newport Beach club hosted three to four televised tournaments a year on its stadium court, says Pat Rolfes, who manages the club’s pickleball division. “I can teach you to play pickleball in five minutes, but it takes a lifetime to master. That’s why it’s a great sport for all skill levels.”

Pickleball Feature Orange Coast Magazine Phil Dunmeyer Court
A pickleball court and players.

Photo by Emily J. Davis.

Dunmeyer had been playing tennis for years, but when he was introduced to pickleball in 2009, he found that the sport satisfied his need for competition and exercise, without exacerbating his back problems. He introduced the sport to his tennis partner, Pete Burns, who was director of maintenance for the Tustin School District.

At the Sycamore school, Dunmeyer converted a tennis court to a pickleball court by using tape to mark off the new boundaries and galvanized steel pipes for a stand to hold up an old badminton net. Soon, friends and colleagues began joining them. A year later, so many people wanted to play that Dunmeyer decided to paint permanent lines and pull up the tape.

Dunmeyer asked Burns, “Who do you suppose we need to talk to to get these lines painted on permanently?” Burns’ reply: “That would be me.” The next year, they obtained regulation pickleball nets. As more and more people joined the group, Dunmeyer and Burns began converting more tennis courts, which were rarely used, into permanent pickleball courts, until they had 10. In the past decade, Dunmeyer spent thousands of dollars of his own money converting the first few courts, and donations enabled him to complete the others. He has taught the basics to newcomers and certified countless instructors, according to standards set by an international pickleball association. The Tustin School District recently began charging the club for use of the facility and the bathroom. Dunmeyer is concerned he will have to raise membership fees again, and it will be a hardship for some picklers.

Marty Lebowitz gingerly made his way into the gym one morning after a night of playing tennis, when a friend who saw him limping suggested a new sport that would be easier on his aching knees. “I was told to show up at Tustin in the morning where Phil was giving lessons to new players,” says Lebowitz, who drives to Tustin from Trabuco Canyon (even though there are courts closer to home) because he enjoys the atmosphere at the club. “Phil gets up at the crack of dawn to make it here, spends countless dollars out of his own pocket, and four to five days a week runs drills and programs and gives lessons. He’s a great promoter of the sport.”

Dunmeyer has taught more than 2,000 picklers and has never charged anyone. “I’ve enjoyed it so much, I just want to pay it forward,” he says. “People are so enthusiastic about pickleball that they reach out and get friends, family, and neighbors involved. That’s why the sport has grown so fast. It’s like a pyramid scheme—but it’s all positive.”

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