Pickleball injuries at…the Masters? We can explain

bernhard langer and akshay bhatia

Bernhard Langer, left, and Akshay Bhatia share something in common.

getty images

Pickleball’s reach is vast.

In 2023, more than 13.6 million Americans stepped onto a pickle court, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s annual Topline Participation Report. That’s more Americans than swooshed down a ski slope (13.1 million) and nearly as many as who played outdoor soccer (14.1 million).

Pickle still has a way to go to catch golf (26.6 million on-course participants in 2023, according to the National Golf Foundation), but it might get there someday. For the last three years running, pickle has been the country’s fastest-growing sport.

Pickle also happens to have several top-shelf golfers as unofficial ambassadors, beginning with the best male golfer on the planet, Scottie Scheffler, who has been playing pickle for less than two years but fallen hard for it. The game’s low barrier of entry, Scheffler has said, appeals to him, so much so that he invested in the Texas Ranchers, his home state’s pro pickleball team. Last fall, Scheffler played in the Carvana Celebrity Pickleball Showdown, in Dallas, with the likes of former NBA stars Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd.

Scheffler’s Lone Star golfing buddy, Jordan Spieth, also enjoys the game. As do a slew of other elite golfers, including Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Tony Finau, Sherri Steinhauer and Amy Olson. Hank Haney, Tiger Woods’ former coach, is a pickle fanatic. In 2019, he told me, “In three to four years, pickleball will be bigger than golf and it won’t even be close.” Haney’s prediction didn’t quite pan out, but he saw the pickle boom coming.  

If you watched Akshay Bhatia win the Texas Open Sunday, you were watching another golfer who’s no stranger to pickleball. And what a finish it was for Bhatia, who needed to treat an injury in the climactic moments of his playoff with Denny McCarthy. Before Bhatia played his wedge shot into the green on the first sudden-death hole, he ducked out to tape up a bum left shoulder, which he had tweaked just minutes earlier when he thrust his arm in celebration on the 72nd hole. After his round, Bhatia said the sudden and sharp movement had momentarily popped his shoulder out of its socket.

The culprit? Pickleball. While playing pickle a couple of years ago. Bhatia said he fully dislocated the shoulder, and it never fully healed. The shoulder has popped on him “two or three times” since he injured it, he said, but never in a more dramatic setting than Sunday evening, when Bhatia was vying not only for his second PGA Tour title but also his first Masters birth.

After reinforcing the shoulder, Bhatia stuck his approach to inside 6 feet to all but seal the victory after McCarthy had hit his own approach into the water fronting the green. It was a gutty shot from Bhatia but he needed to take only one swing to close the deal. Question now is, how will the shoulder hold up over hundreds of swings at Augusta National this week?  

At the Masters on Monday, Bhatia called the injury a “work in progress,” adding, “It’s a weird, weird experience because I had so much adrenaline so I had no pain, kind of, in that playoff. But it’s definitely something we’re going to have to work towards, and I have a lot of trust in my team that we can tee it up on Thursday.”

jordan spieth scottie scheffler pickleball
Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler teamed up in pickleball. It was fantastic
By: Sean Zak

Remarkably — or perhaps it’s not so remarkable given pickle’s popularity among professional golfers — Bhatia is not the only Masters invitee managing a pickleball injury. Bernhard Langer, who was planning to make his Masters farewell this week, had to withdraw from the field in January after he tore his Achilles tendon playing pickle. (Langer is still onsite this week and will attend the Tuesday evening Champions Dinner; on Monday, in a sign that his recovery is progressing, he was spotted hitting balls on the range.)

Langer, who is 66, said last month on the “Musings on Golf” podcast, that pickle is part of his fitness regime. He said the injury occurred while he was trying to reach an opponent’s lob shot.

“I did a few steps backward and hit an overhead, and as I landed on the ground with my feet I heard this huge pop, very loud, like a gunshot,” he said on the podcast. “I knew right away it was a torn Achilles.”

In 40 Masters starts, Langer has won twice and finished in the top 10 nine times; his 72.81 Masters scoring average includes 18 rounds that he played in his 60s. He long has been considered one of the game’s fittest and most health-conscious players, which explains his longevity. But pickle puts a different kind of strain on the body than does golf.

Official data around pickleball injuries is sparse, though according to an unpublished study by Eric Bowman, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, between 2017 and 2022 the incidence of pickleball-related injuries did outpace the growth of the sport’s popularity. Bowman’s findings, which he shared with NBC News in February, also indicated that soft tissue injuries were the most common among picklers.

Should Tour pros cease from playing pickle? No one is suggesting such a thing! Clearly, many of the world’s best golfers find pickle to be an enjoyable escape from the pressures of the Tour grind — they just might want to tread (and dink) carefully while playing during the heat of the major season.   

Alan Bastable

Golf.com Editor

As GOLF.com’s executive editor, Bastable is responsible for the editorial direction and voice of one of the game’s most respected and highly trafficked news and service sites. He wears many hats — editing, writing, ideating, developing, daydreaming of one day breaking 80 — and feels privileged to work with such an insanely talented and hardworking group of writers, editors and producers. Before grabbing the reins at GOLF.com, he was the features editor at GOLF Magazine. A graduate of the University of Richmond and the Columbia School of Journalism, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and foursome of kids.

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