MISSOULA — The Montana Open Pickleball Tournament won’t be played at Fort Missoula Regional Park for the first time in the tournament’s four years — and that’s a good thing.
The fourth annual tournament will instead take place at Playfair Park from Friday through Sunday. The area used for pickleball courts at Fort Missoula is undergoing renovations to make for permanent fixtures in Phase 2 of the $38 million project.
“The growth (of the sport) has been great,” said Mike Creighton, one of several area retirees who brought pickleball to Missoula from Arizona six years ago. “It’s the best that you could hope for. We came just hoping to get pickleball started, and it’s just grown and grown and grown.”
This year’s tournament will feature a Montana Open record 105 players, according to Ryan Yearous, a recreation specialist with Missoula Parks & Recreation. There were 80 players last year and 65 when the tournament launched in 2014, he said.
Players who Creighton and fellow Missoula retirees became friends with in Arizona will bring a national taste to the tournament. They’re coming from Idaho, Washington, Arizona, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Canada.
Pickleball has routinely been called the fastest growing sport in America. It started in Washington State in 1965 but has taken off recently with nearly 4,000 places to play, which is more than double the number from 2010, according to the USA Pickleball Association. The sport is popular in retirement communities, is growing at park districts and is being played in K-12 gym classes.
There are 25 pickleball locations listed in Montana on the USAPA website.
This weekend’s Montana Open at Playfair Park is free for anyone to attend and watch. Men’s singles and women’s doubles start 1 p.m. Friday, men’s doubles and women’s singles begin 8 a.m. Saturday, and mixed doubles start 8 a.m. Sunday.
Fans who come out will see how the close proximity of players — the courts are 20 feet wide and 44 feet long — promotes a social atmosphere during play. Players use short-handle wood or composite paddles slightly bigger than a ping-pong paddle to hit a perforated plastic ball over a net 34 inches high.
“What I like about it is (that) any age can play it,” Penny Creighton said. “Anybody with an ability or disability almost can play it. People with bad backs or surgeries. It brings a lot of people together to socialize. And it’s a good way to stay active.”
The Montana Open is using five divisions based on skill level, going from 2.5 to 4.5 in increments of 0.5. A 5.0 or higher typically denotes a professional player. The top three finishers or doubles team in each division will be awarded a medal.
There will be between eight and 10 courts with games going on simultaneously, Yearous said.