Two years ago, 26-year LPGA Tour veteran Sherri Steinhauer arrived without her golf clubs at her winter home in Rancho Mirage, California.
She also left behind a desire to play the game in which she had won eight LPGA titles -- including two major championships -- and appeared on four U.S. Solheim Cup teams.
But her California neighbor and former University of Texas teammate, Lisa DePaulo, brought along two pickleball paddles and told Steinhauer she had a new game for them to play during the winter months in the desert.
The two LPGA pros hacked around on the courts at Mission Hills Country Club, not knowing the game's rules or techniques. That night, Steinhauer went online and learned the rules of pickleball, and returned to the courts the next day with a burning desire to master this new game.
"I was hooked immediately," said Steinhauer, 55, a native of Madison, Wisconsin. "Since that first day, I've hardly missed a day of playing pickleball."
While the game began as a recreational sport in the mid-1960s, and has often been regarded as a scaled-down version of tennis for older players who could no longer cover a full court, pickleball's appeal has ramped up in recent years from coast to coast, becoming one of the nation's fastest-growing sports in terms of popularity.
Now, players of all ages have elevated the game into a fast-paced mash-up of tennis and volleyball, using paddles and a tennis-ball-sized whiffle ball on a court about half the size of a tennis court. Rallies are fast and frenetic across the net.
Tournaments have also sprung up throughout the country, offering competition for various age divisions and skill levels. At the recent US Open Pickleball Championship in Naples, Florida, 2,000 players competed on 50 courts in an event that started on a Sunday and ended the following Saturday.
Steinhauer, who has played in 24 U.S. Women's Open Championships in golf, made her first appearance in April at the US Open Pickleball Championship and walked away with a bronze medal in mixed doubles. She played down in her age division (ages 19-49 instead of 55 and over) and up in skill level (5.0 instead of 4.5), because her partner, Jordan Hanisch, is 27 and has a skill rating of 5.0 -- the highest rating, right below the "open" professional level.
"We discussed it at length," Steinhauer said. "He thought we could probably win a medal in the 4.5 division, but then he said, 'Wouldn't it be more fun to win a medal at 5.0?' And I agreed."
By week's end, Steinhauer had played 20 matches in four different competitive events with four different partners, including two in women's doubles and two mixed-doubles events.
"I walked away from that experience understanding what I have to do to get better," said Steinhauer, known as a fiercely determined LPGA player with a deft putting stroke. "I've gained a wealth of knowledge and amazing experience with this special group of people I've met playing tournaments."
Steinhauer retired from the LPGA in 2012 and played on The Legends Tour, where she won twice against LPGA players age 45 and over. But years of competitive golf and the grind of travel had worn on her body.
She underwent hip surgery in 2009 to repair tendon and labrum tears as well as muscle ruptures in both hips. For years while she competed, just making a complete hip rotation in her golf swing was painful, with sometimes unpredictable results.
"It hurt to turn and I struggled with that for a long time," Steinhauer said. "I love golf and I'm very grateful for everything it gave me, but I think with my injuries, it became tough and that took the fun out of the game."
Ironically, the more fast-paced game of pickleball doesn't bother her. Because its movement is largely forward and lateral, it doesn't involve the longer rotation and repetitive torque required in a golf swing.
Admittedly, Steinhauer struggled as a retired athlete. The thrill of competition was gone and the adjustment was difficult.
"When I found pickleball, all of a sudden, I became very happy again," said Steinhauer, who winters in the California desert, lives in upstate New York during the summer months and travels back and forth to her native Midwest as often as possible. "It filled the void of competition for me and has given me something to look forward to every day."
Early in the week during the LPGA's ANA Inspiration at the end of March, Steinhauer organized a pickleball play day on the courts at Mission Hills and invited LPGA veterans and current players to come learn the game. She set up exhibitions by top-rated 5.0 players and organized doubles matches to allow LPGA players a chance to compete alongside pickleball pros.
Current American LPGA players Cydney Clanton and Amy Olson took time off from practice at the golf championship to learn how to play pickleball.
"It's a lot of fun and at the level they are playing, it's definitely athletic," Clanton said. "Of course, if you get a group of athletic people together, it's going to be a competitive game."
Steinhauer's fellow LPGA professionals were not surprised to see how much she has improved after only two years of playing pickleball.
"She's got a ball machine in California and in New York and she's taking pickleball lessons all the time and competing around the country," LPGA pro Laurie Rinker said.
"She was always so fierce and determined on tour and she has great hand-eye coordination," added Pat Hurst, a six-time LPGA winner. "This is perfect for her."
Steinhauer has immersed herself in studying the new game and analyzing its tactics. She won a national 4.5 mixed-doubles championship last year in her first year of competition, playing with partner Mike Moonan in the 55-and-over age group.
"One day she called me and said, 'It's all about third-shot drop,' which is a playing strategy in pickleball," DePaulo said. "And she told me she had practiced that move for eight hours during one weekend so she would be ready for a tournament."
"Later, she told me she had hit 73 of 77 third-shot drops during her tournament," DePaulo added. "I asked how she knew that when the game is so fast and she told me she had put up her GoPro camera to record the game so she could keep her stats."
Steinhauer also practices with higher-skilled players. Her Mission Hills pickleball pals kept her winter months slammed with three hours of matches each day, six days a week.
"Sherri is an athlete," said Kim Jagd, a 5.0 pickleball player and former professional beach volleyball player. "She's strong in competitive moments. She doesn't wilt."
Added Karen Gysin, also a 5.0 player and former competitor on California's professional beach volleyball circuit: "She plays and practices with us and we don't take it easy on her. She left golf in the rearview mirror to focus on pickleball and that's why she's become the player she has."
Steinhauer will play another national-level tournament this summer with Hanisch in mixed doubles, and she will begin competing in women's doubles alongside former professional women's tennis circuit player Jasna "Yaz" Stefanovic -- also a 5.0 player and winner of several national pickleball titles.
"Even though she doesn't have a background in racket sports, her winning mind is there," Stefanovic said. "You have to have tremendous patience to play golf, and in pickleball, you also have to be patient because it's like playing chess against your opponent."
Armed with a sponsorship from Michigan equipment manufacturer Paddletek, and the support of fellow competitors, Steinhauer hopes to become a solid 5.0 player and then move on to the open, professional level. Next year, she wants to play in the open division at the US Open Pickleball Championship, and she has the goal of someday winning the open title there.
And as she left to go work on her game after the April Mission Hills play day, Steinhauer drove off in her golf cart packed with a ball machine, paddles and bright yellow pickleballs. Her golf tour bag and clubs were nowhere in sight.