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Table Tennis vs Golf - Why do Golf Professionals Play Ping-Pong?

Is Tiger Woods Taking Up Table Tennis?

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Tiger Woods Playing Ping-Pong

Is Tiger Woods Taking Up Table Tennis?

Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images
Serious ping-pong players know that table tennis is the best sport around, bar none - and one of the toughest to master. That doesn't stop professionals from other sports such as golf's Tiger Woods from thinking that they have what it takes to rise to the top of the table tennis elite.

And speaking of golf, it's well known that many professional golfers enjoy a game of table tennis when they are off-course. Curious about why elite golfers are so passionate about ping-pong, Michael Walker of Golf Magazine asked me the following questions:

  1. MW - Professional golfers seem to play a lot of ping-pong, especially when competing in international team events. Why would ping-pong be such a popular diversion or way to let off steam?

    A number of reasons spring to mind, such as:

    • It's easy on the body - you can have just have fun and relax, or get a good sweat up if you want to play a bit harder.

    • It's good for the mind - keeps their mental decision making sharp.

    • Top golf players are competitive guys - and you can't beat table tennis for real eye to eye, in your face battles. After all, you are staring down your opponent from 9 feet away. I could see that appealing to the gladiator in each of them.

    • It's indoors and out of the weather - I'd guess they get out often enough during their normal day. The fact that it doesn't take much space to play garage ping-pong doesn't hurt either.

    • Ping-pong would help improve their hand/eye coordination, and balance. Always important for golfers.

    • It's highly addictive - the feeling of hitting a sweet shot in table tennis is similar to hitting the sweet shot in golf - you want to do it again. And again.

    • These guys travel a lot, and a table tennis bat and a couple of balls doesn't take up much luggage space.

    • At international events, it's a chance for the golfing winners to rub the losers nose in it again, while the losers get a chance to salvage some respect.

  2. MW - Is there any reason to think professional golfers would be especially good at ping-pong because of their hand-eye coordination? What innate talents are necessary to become a really good ping-pong player?

    Some of the golfers could be good players at amateur level. Their hand eye coordination certainly helps. Plus knowledge of angles, ball curving in flight, effects of spin - all of which would help in table tennis. A bit of fanaticism thrown in and a bit more athleticism and things aren't so different between the two sports. Plus the ability to soak up pressure when the stakes are high. So yes, I think you could find some good potential for table tennis players among the pro golf ranks.

  3. MW - Tiger Woods' comments on ping-pong on 60 Minutes set off a message-board controversy on your web site. Do you think top ping-pong players are more athletic than top golfers? Also, if Tiger devoted himself to ping-pong in the same way he devoted himself to golf, could he be a world-class player? How bad would you beat him?

    No doubt about it, top ping-pong players are more athletic than the top golf players. Apart from a couple of notable exceptions such as Csilla Batorfi of Hungary, elite table tennis players are lean and quick as cats, with good stamina thrown in. Golf is a sport, and a good one, but in terms of sheer athleticism, it's not even close. Although someone like Tiger is obviously in good shape too!

    Tiger as a world-class player? Maybe, if he started at the same age he started golf! Seriously though, the competition at the top of table tennis is just as fierce as the top of golf. Only the best of the best ever make it to world class. Tiger obviously has athleticism and world class dedication, but has he got world class table tennis talent? Unlikely. So no, the odds would be against him.

    How bad would I beat him? Hmmm... badly. I mean, really badly. We are talking lucky to get a point or two here. I'm getting old and only ranked at around 1100 in the world, but it wouldn't be pretty. Think about the skill it takes to hit a drive 300 yards down the middle of the fairway - now imagine you've got to try to do that to a target that's spinning at a huge number of rpm's and moving at high speed to an unpredictable location. Then do it again and again. That's the difference between basement ping-pong and table tennis.

    I'm not saying that table tennis is harder than golf, but the gap between the fun player (like Tiger) and the advanced amateur (like myself) is huge. It's like putting a 24 handicapper up against a scratch player - the 24 handicapper can play a bit and might hit a lucky shot or two but who would you bet on over 18 holes?

  4. MW - Based on what you know about them, what would you think the following golfers be like at the table?
    • Tiger Woods

      Cool, calm, and unhurried. Would be learning from each loss, and plotting your downfall the next time. Also a gracious loser as well as a winner. Not someone you would want to be 3-games all and 10 points all against - he'd win a lot of crunch matches. A two wing looper (fast topspinner from both the forehand and backhand) who dominates his opponents. Table Tennis equivalent - Wang Liqin of China.

    • Phil Mickelson

      Left handed - always an advantage in table tennis. But I've heard he's right handed at everything else, so would he play lefty or righty? Or maybe switch hands during the point (which is legal to do)? Big hitter with a surprisingly good drop shot. Consistently up there but only winning the occasional tournament. Table Tennis equivalent - Timo Boll of Germany.

    • Vijay Singh

      One of the few rivals to Tiger and Phil at table tennis. Plays penhold style close to the table and hits everything as fast as he can. Complains about the umpire calling faults on his serve, and was once disqualified for using illegal speed glue. Table Tennis Equivalent - Kim Taek Soo of Korea.

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