Lefty Golf: The Far Side of the Ball

I learned how to play golf as a left-hander because those were the clubs available from aunt and uncle hand-me-downs. I wasn’t great, but got my game up and running somewhat  (although the comment once made of Jim Furyk’s swing applied – “beheading a snake in a phone booth.”)  I switched, once new equipment became available, and was much better, but not terrific either way. What I remember is how different the sensations were, and Bob Charles reminded me of it when he spoke of the leading hand being a pusher or a back-hander.

Charles, the first famous lefty on tour, was the first to win a PGA event and a major (Houston and British Open), in addition to around eighty titles worldwide. He always said that despite being right-handed, whenever he put two hands on an object, the left was always beneath. Mythology abounds on the phenomenon of left-handedness, but it turns out not to be the phenomenon we originally thought. Both Canadian Mike Weir (Masters Champion, ’03) and Phil Mickelson of the U.S. execute various daily tasks both left and right-handed, dispelling the previous medical notion that we are aligned completely to one side.

Coach Peter Johnson, who specializes in lefties, reinforces Charles, suggesting that it isn’t so much the hands, but the eyes. Which is the dominant eye, and how do you visualize the ball leaving you during the shot? What probably hindered left-handed golfers back in the day of Sir Robert Charles was a scarcity of great equipment. Even so, it didn’t stop him from winning the New Zealand as an eighteen year old amateur, and unseating the great Peter Thompson. When Weir won the Masters, fellow southpaw Mattiace was close on his heels.

Left-handedness has always been surrounded by mythology, ascribing both genius and dimwittedness to the condition. Through time, we’ve mostly straightened that out, as the principle of “can you do it or can’t you?” prevails, as it should in the top levels of any skill profession.  Interesting, however, is that Canada is said to have the largest percentage of left-handed players, although that claim is not well verified. It is suggested that maneuvering a hockey stick requires ease in both left and right hand positions, but that theory has a suspicious feel to it. Also interesting is that six left-handed players are currently on the men’s tour (Axley, Cochran, Flesch, Mickelson and Watson from the U.S., Weir of Canada, Wilkinson of New Zealand, Chalmers and O’Hern of Australia), but not a single lefty female currently plays for the LPGA.

The emergence of organizations and publications continue to normalize left-handed play. Charles helped with his “The Left-Handers Golf Book,” and the video, “Golf from the Other Side.” Surprisingly, there is a National Association of Left-Handed Golfers (NALG), a World Association of Left-Handed Golfers (WALG) and numerous state and regional examples, complete with tournaments and other celebrations of the game. Professionals with conviction such as Jack Nicklaus have been helpful. At the age of eleven, Weir met Nicklaus, and wrote him at thirteen, asking if he should stick to his lefty approach. Nicklaus replied that he should always play where his game was at its most natural, and the rest is history.

Progress is slow, but on the left-handed question, we’ve come a long way, and it is theorized that up to ten percent of aspiring golfers are good candidates for the left-handed position. Charles, Mickelson and Weir have only faced questions about whether the decision is natural to the body. In the Middle Ages, they might have been tried for sorcery.

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