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
No, Bubba, no!! Not yet, not now – can’t you wait until next year!?
I was genuinely torn. I love Bubba Watson, and he was making a charge on the Back Nine on Sunday (yes, that’s a proper noun – or should be) and threatening to win the 2012 Masters. Should he pull it off, it would be a big day for loveable self-proclaimed rednecks, guys who hit the ball halfway to Pluto with quirky, home-grown swings, and left-handed golfers around the world.
On that last point, it would be a little too big. At least in my estimation.
And the weird thing is, I seemed to be the only one who knew it.
You see, when Gerry “Bubba” Watson hit that crazy gap-wedge hook out of the trees on the 10th at Augusta during the playoff with Louis Oosthuizen (don’t worry, I’ve read that there are actually three different ways to pronounce it correctly), he was about to become the first true left-handed golfer to win a major professional tournament.
What’s that you say? What about Phil Mickelson and Mike Weir, left-handers who both won the Masters – in Phil’s case, three times – just within the last decade? And Bob Charles – who left-handers around the world venerate as the man who originally broke the major dexterity barrier by winning the 1963 British Open?
Sorry, try again. I said true left-handed golfer. Because believe it or not, all three of those fine golfing gentlemen are, in fact, natural right-handers who just happen to play golf left-handed.
Really? That’s amazing!
I know, right!? And what’s even more amazing is, even though this fact is firmly established, nobody besides me seemed to know it. Not once in the aftermath of Bubba’s historic victory did I hear it mentioned or written about.
But I knew it because Bubba was about to blow up the premise of the book I’d been working on for the past year-and-a-half. The one you’re reading right now. And that, at the time, felt like a big problem.
• • •
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 golf swing. “You’re using too much right hand!” was my dad’s most consistent piece of advice. “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 my right hand more 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 victory) 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 testing this theory – and hopes of turning him into a world-class player.
The truth, as it turns out, is more mundane – but at least 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. At some point they tried to turn him around, to swing the club like a proper right-handed little boy. 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?
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 well have been encouraged to do so, given that in hockey it’s helpful to have left-handed shooters playing on the left side of the ice, putting southpaws in greater 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 to him 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.
The man now known as Sir 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 characters ever, and author of one of the great comeback stories in the history of sport – wrote that he was, in fact, “born left-handed.”
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 maybe be possible for a 47-year-old underachieving right-hander 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 will go away while my good ones 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 Rory McIlroy and Cost Cutters. Like Vijay Singh and Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater. 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 8. 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? 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.
Bubba have mercy.