A Sinister Proposition

David Letterman: Fifty percent of the most recent winners have been
left-handed, is that true, at Augusta?

Bubba Watson: Yeah. Fifty percent are right-handed, too.

“Late Night with David Letterman,” April 10, 2012  

Want to win a few bets at the 19th hole? Ask the others in your foursome to name four lefties who have won major championships in golf. Your knowledgeable friends will quickly reel off the names Bob Charles, Mike Weir, Phil Mickelson, and Bubba Watson.

Imagine their shock and surprise when you tell them – as you hastily collect your winnings – that only one of those guys, Bubba Watson, is a true lefty. The other three are actually right-handed, but play golf from the sinister side.

Now imagine their rage when they realize you’ve tricked them. Fisticuffs ensue. Since you’re outnumbered three-to-one, they easily beat you to a pulp and take back your winnings. They also take your watch and the rest of the cash in your wallet, just for good measure.

Man, who are these guys!? Why you would want to play golf with three jerks like them is beyond me, but who am I to judge another man’s friends?

Later, in the E.R., you tell your wife what happened and she asks the obvious question: “Well …? If not Charles, Weir, and Mickelson [your wife is very knowledgeable about golf; that’s why you married her], what’s the answer? Have any other true left-handers ever won a major professional golf championship?”

A smile creeps across your bloodied face, but you wince only slightly at the pain. “Johnny Miller,” you gasp. “Greg Norman. Curtis Strange. Nick Price. David Graham. Byron Nelson.”

A hush falls as doctors, nurses, assorted orderlies, and the little old lady in the waiting room stop what they’re doing and draw silently closer, hanging on your every word. Everyone is astonished by the revealed wisdom that has already passed your swollen lips, but you’re not done yet. With strength fading, you summon another breath and whisper, like Charles Foster Kane spitting out “Rosebud”: “Hogan.”

A nurse faints. In the hallway, a bedpan crashes to the floor. Across the pond, a chill wind blows through “Hogan’s Alley” at Carnoustie.

“They’re all naturally left-handed,” you explain. “They only play golf right-handed.”

A tear runs down your wife’s cheek as she turns to the attending physician and says, “Doctor, my husband is obviously delirious and in great pain. Can you do something?”

Shaking his head with a sad and concerned look, the doctor lowers a mask to your face. Moments later the room goes dark and all is quiet.

In retrospect, maybe you should have just stuck to the conventional wisdom. Or at least made the stakes a little lower.

• • •

Ever since I was a kid first taking up the game of golf, I was taught that the left hand is, or should be, the dominant hand in a right-handed swing. “You’re using too much right hand!” was my dad’s most frequent input. “Let your left hand pull the club through; don’t push it through with your right.”

How can that be? I always wondered. I throw with my right hand. I write with my right hand. I hit my annoying younger brother with my right hand. Why wouldn’t I use mostly my right hand to swing a golf club?

And, assuming it’s true that I shouldn’t, wouldn’t it make sense for me, as a right-handed person, to play golf left-handed?

That thought has haunted me ever since. And so when Phil the Thrill, the right-handed lefty, first burst onto the scene by winning the U.S. Amateur and a boatload of college titles (not to mention a PGA tournament) as a young amateur, I assumed he was a product of just such a theory. Surely, I thought, someone must have groomed him to play as a southpaw with an eye toward turning him into a world-class player.

The truth, as it turns out, is more mundane – but just as interesting. When Phil was first taking up the game as a wee lad in San Diego, California, he learned to swing a club by standing in front of his father and literally mirroring the elder Mickelson’s movements. He did everything else right-handed, so they tried to turn him around. But Phil was a stubborn cuss, and he would have none of it. So a “lefty” he remained, albeit only on the golf course. The question is: Did it make him a better golfer?

Meanwhile, Mike Weir, like most young boys in Canada, first fell in love with hockey. A natural right-hander, Weir found he could swing a hockey stick more easily with his left hand low. So that’s how he played. In fact, he may have been encouraged to do so, since in hockey it’s helpful to have left-handed shooters playing on the left side of the ice, putting southpaws in demand.

When “Weirsy” took up golf later, it only made sense for him to swing from the “wrong” side of the ball – using a partial set of left-handed clubs handed down by a family friend. Good thing, too. If none had been available, he may have been forced to turn things around – and who knows where his golf may have led him then. To obscurity? Or to possibly even greater heights? The world will never know.

Decades before, Bob Charles, the patron saint of left-handed golf, does everything right-handed except “play games requiring two hands.” Turns out that both his parents were excellent golfers, and lefties. That is, his mom was a natural lefty, his father a righty – but they both played golf left-handed. So when young Bob, a natural right-hander, took up the game himself, the clubs he found lying around the house were all left-handed. And that’s how he learned to play.

Charles’s situation mirrors the challenge routinely faced by young lefties all over the world: You’re a southpaw, and interested in playing golf, but the only clubs you can find to use are right-handed. So you “make do.” Could it be that’s actually an advantage?

While some 15 percent of the population at large is left-handed, only about 10 percent of golfers overall play that way. The percentage is even smaller at the professional level. The worldwide shortage of left-handed equipment (especially in the olden days) probably explains why so many natural lefties such as Norman (world #1 for 331 consecutive weeks), Strange (a back-to-back U.S. Open champion), and Miller (U.S. and British Open titles) play golf right-handed. And play it so well. Even the great Ben Hogan – winner of nine major championships, perhaps golf’s most enigmatic and compelling character ever, and author of one of the great comeback stories in the history of sport – wrote that he was, in fact, “born left-handed” (though he would later refute his own claim).

Yet certain questions remain unanswered: What role, if any did “the big switch” play in the success of these top golfers? Would they, could they, have succeeded as righties? Given the success of these great champions, is a golfer potentially better off learning to play from the opposite side?

And what about the strange case of David Graham (PGA Championship and U.S. Open titles), who grew up learning to play golf left-handed, but switched to right-handed as a teenager? Or Mac O’Grady, a right-handed pro and one of the PGA Tour’s greatest eccentrics, who played so well left-handed he once petitioned the USGA to grant him amateur status as a left-hander? And then there was the legendary gambler Titanic Thompson, who bested many top golfers of his day – pros and amateurs alike – by playing left- or right-handed.

What is it about the game of golf that invites such high levels of “crossover” success? And more to the point: Could it just be possible for a 47-year-old underachieving right-hander to fix his lifelong swing flaws and become the golfer he always wanted to be by turning things around and “relearning” the game as a lefty?

Let’s look at a few of the obstacles such a “hypothetical” golfer – that is to say, that I – would face:

Habit. Think about how natural your golf swing feels to you. It didn’t get that way overnight, but through many thousands of repetitions. Perhaps over the course of a lifetime. Now think about how unnatural an opposite-handed swing would feel. How long would it take to make the foreign motion feel natural? Maybe it never would. It’s tempting to believe that my bad habits would go away while my good ones would carry over. But that’s not likely to happen. With my luck, my touch and feel, meticulously developed over a lifetime of ball-striking, would go out the window while the nearly overwhelming massive bending arc (NOMBA™) of my tee shots would stick to me like goose poop to Foot Joys.

Age. According to wisdom handed down through many generations, old dogs and new tricks go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise. Like Tiger and Phil. Like Jordan Spieth and shaving. Is 47 too old to learn a whole new way of doing things? Is my muscle memory too set in its crotchety old ways? (Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn!)

Physiology. And that’s not even considering the physical obstacles that come with getting older. My back is not what it used to be. My flexibility (what little I ever had) has gone the way of the hickory shaft. In fact, replacing my rickety spine with a hickory shaft might be an improvement. Plus, it’s a known scientific fact that the little aches and pains everyone develops now and then take longer to go away once you start wanting to go to bed at 9:30.

Family. I’m pushing 50. I have a son, Jack, who’s 9. A wife, Elizabeth, who’s … forever young. They are very important to me. Is it possible to put in the work that will be required to succeed without them forgetting who I am? My son already tells his friends that all I do is watch golf and read about golf. And sometimes I play golf – hopefully with him. At least he shows signs of learning to love the game as much as I do. Perhaps I can incorporate him into the learning process, take him to the range and par-3 and such. He’d like that! And so would I. But what about the missus? I don’t think she would enjoy tagging along the same way my son would, and I doubt I have enough “marital capital” stored up to carry me through. (Note to self: Start doing more laundry and vacuuming. And dusting … yeah, dusting.)

What’s the point? Already my idea has been greeted with some skepticism from friends and loved ones – to say nothing of the outright derision dished out by my mortal enemies. They don’t understand why I would want to do this – or doubt that learning to play from the left side would be an effective method of improving my golf game. But that’s not really what it’s about. The point is to try it and see what happens. And to see what I can learn – about the golf swing, left-handedness, myself, and perhaps life – along the way. No matter how good or bad a left-handed golfer I one day become, I believe an adventure awaits down this path.

Commitment. Is it going to be fun to start over? Will I hate being bad? At what point in the learning process does golf become enjoyable? Such a quest would probably mean giving up right-handed golf completely. Perhaps for a time, perhaps forever. Progress will likely be slow – will I miss playing decent golf too much to carry this plan to fruition? One reason I consider myself a golfing underachiever is that I’ve never been willing to put in the work (on the range, that is) required to improve the way I’d like. Will I be willing and able to stick to my guns and practice hard? I’m starting to feel tired already.

That last question – about commitment – if appraised by one of those guest experts on “Pawn Stars,” would probably produce a value somewhere in the range of $64,000. Well, that would be the auction price. Chances are, after not-too-gently explaining to me how he’s running a business here, Rick would probably offer me something just north of half that amount.

But there’s only one way to find out if I’m holding a rare and genuine gem of an idea or a cheap and ordinary piece of costume jewelry. I going to have to just do it and find out for myself. So let the quest begin.

So help me Hogan.

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