ABOVE: Arnie Kass of Boynton Beach has been lawn bowling for more than 10 years and is a member of the Delray Beach Lawn Bowling Club, which plays at Veterans Park. The club dates to 1963. BELOW: A wooden board with players’ names serves as a schedule of matches. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Brian Biggane
In Delray Beach, lawn bowlers have history on their side, pickleballers have the numbers, and the City Commission and Parks and Recreation Department are caught in the middle.
Widely considered the fastest-growing sport in the United States, pickleball has quickly built a strong following in Delray Beach, with membership of the Delray Beach Pickleball Club growing to 271 in just 18 months since it was founded in November 2017.
The city has responded to that growth by converting two tennis courts at the Delray Beach Tennis Center to eight pickleball courts, and providing access to indoor courts at Pompey Park on weekdays and outdoor courts at both the community center and Catherine Strong Park.
But with 50-60 players showing up on a daily basis at the parks, club members packed a city workshop in January to demand more.
The city’s solution: Veterans Park, where a few shuffleboard courts sit idle adjacent to a 120-by-120-foot tract used by the Delray Beach Lawn Bowling Club that could be converted to as many as a dozen pickleball courts.
Needless to say, the lawn bowlers — who number 50-60 during the winter months and 35-40 in summer — aren’t happy with that prospect.
“I wish them well,” lawn bowler Richard Flater said, “but they can go anywhere. This is the only place we have.”
“The goal is to be able to accommodate both groups,” said Parks and Recreation Director Sam Metott, who became point man on the project recently when Suzanne Fisher was promoted to assistant city manager. “We can’t put them both in the same spot.”
A plaque hanging in the Veterans Park clubhouse dates the origin of the Lawn Bowling Club to 1963, when John F. Kennedy was president and Delray Beach was a sleepy beach town. The game’s popularity in England and its onetime colonies such as Australia, New Zealand and India has meant that visitors from all those countries have made the trip and played at Veterans Park.
The game has also made its mark in French-speaking parts of Canada, prompting dozens of Québécois to make winter homes in south Palm Beach County.
Howie Herman is one club member who can attest to the game’s appeal.
“The reason I came to Delray in the first place is because of this club,” Herman said. “We were looking for a place to vacation, came down for a couple weeks, I started bowling with this club and I bought in this area.
“We shop in Delray Beach, we eat in Delray Beach. Will I continue to live here if they take it away? I can’t say that. We might move to the west coast (of Florida) to have a club.”
Therein lies a bigger problem. While pickleball courts seem to be popping up everywhere, the only other lawn bowling club south of Sarasota is in Naples.
Flater said converting the club to pickleball would be a cultural setback.
“Do you want to keep the Colony Hotel, the Sundy House, places with a little bit of history, or do you want the latest fad to dominate? We’re trying to make that argument,” he said.
Glenn Kessler, who took over as president of the Delray Beach Pickleball Club in March, has his own arguments.
“When they played the U.S. Open in Naples in 2016, they had 600 players,” Kessler said. “In 2017 they had 1,200 players, and in 2018 they were up to 2,300, coming from 48 states and one guy from India. So, the sport is just exploding, and my sense is Delray wants to be part of that explosion.”
And while Delray Beach has become a world-renowned tennis mecca, the city has expressed a desire to go even further.
“We’ve really been trying to make Delray not just a tennis town but a racket sport destination,” Metott said. “We do a number of events now, on the beach for beach tennis, and obviously pickleball just keeps exploding. More than 40 people play at the Tennis Center every single night, all weekend long, and they can’t get enough.”
One difference between the two sports is noise. While the rolling of balls toward a jack — a white ball about the size of a cue ball that is identical to the one used in bocce — barely makes a sound, the clack-clack-clack of the plastic pickleball off plastic rackets could change the image of what has always been a peaceful park on the Intracoastal, not to mention annoy tenants in a multistory condo just across the water. The city has commissioned a noise study and Metott said its results could be a game-changer.
“I don’t see them accommodating pickleball with the noise,” Lawn Bowling Club President Richard Marcus said. “There are big objections from the building across the way.”
The pickleballers, who have been told the transition will be made by the end of the year, are undeterred.
“We’ve measured it out, measured how many courts we think we can get in, and we’re really excited,” Kessler said. “We’ve tried to run kids’ programs and all, but having a site like that helps. Our whole effort is to give back to the community. We just gave $1,000 to Habitat for Humanity, and we want to get more kids involved, families involved.
“But there is absolutely no ill will toward the lawn bowling people. We would very much like to get them out on the pickleball court so we could convert them.”
Some of the lawn bowlers admitted to having tried it but prefer their game.
“Some of us can’t play pickleball,” club member Joe Miele said. “This is a game for people in their 70s, 80s, even 90s.”
Metott said his most recent conversation with the lawn bowlers was in early April and that he remains optimistic a resolution can be found.
“We wanted to look at different options and they were very open to getting their needs filled,” he said. “There are some potential options there for them. They were very big-picture looking. They said they can play on grass, and they like clay, so they were very flexible.”