Once a physicist: Walter Ray Williams Jr
Walter Ray Williams Jr is a professional ten-pin bowler, based in Ocala, Florida, in the US. He has won more titles in his career than any other bowler.
What is your background in physics?
I was always good at maths and interested in science and when I took physics at high school it just seemed to make sense. I then got an associate degree in mathematics and physics at Chaffey Community College, near Los Angeles, followed by a BS in physics with a minor in maths at California Polytechnic University at Pomona.
How did your talent for bowling develop?
As a youngster, I won the boys' world horseshoe-pitching championships three times and went on to win the men's championship six times. For those who are not familiar with the sport, it involves taking a U-shaped metal object weighing about 2.5 lb and "pitching" it 37 ft at a 15 inch high stake. The aim is to make a "ringer" where the horseshoe encircles the stake – world champions can usually do this around 85% of the time. Since horseshoe pitching is an underarm motion similar to ten-pin bowling, I thought that I might be good at that too. During college I bowled in local events when I could and joined the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA), which ultimately helped me pay my way through college.
When did you realize you could make a living as a professional bowler?
I started competing on the PBA bowling tour in January 1983, before I got my degree. I finished my thesis, which was on the physics of a bowling ball rolling down a lane, on the road. In my first full year on the tour I made more money than I spent, so I figured that I could do this for at least a few years.
What are some of the highlights of your career?
I won my first national PBA title in 1986 and after winning two more events that year was voted PBA player of the year. I have since won a total of 42 titles, which ranks me number one of all time. I have been PBA player of the year six times, and I am currently the highest ever money winner in bowling with over $3.6m in official earnings.
Are there any ways that your background in physics helps you in your career as a bowler?
I am not sure exactly what I learned from my thesis. I think I made mistakes in some of the calculations that I keep meaning to go back over and fix – but I haven't and it has been 24 years now! However, I do think that physics is a huge part of bowling and that gives me a different insight to other players into what is going on. Unfortunately some of the variables change or are very difficult to know exactly, so it comes down to more of a statistical game – a perfect shot doesn't always get a strike.
This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Physics World
last edited: January 11, 2017