From the Golf Journal Archives - Left In

Jan 19, 2010

Once considered awkward participants of the game, previously ignored southpaws are finally being afforded the same opportunities as their right-handed counterparts.

By David Shefter

(Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2000 issue of Golf Journal.)

Find the word “sinister” in the dictionary and the first definition is “on the left side, inauspicious.” For centuries, left-handed individuals were portrayed as outcasts. Teachers would slap the hands of youngsters trying to write with their left hand. The English language retains such perceptions; radicals are called “extreme leftists” and a left-handed compliment maintains derogatory overtones.

The distinction is apparent in golf, where lefties are chided for standing on the wrong side of the ball or for holding their clubs backward. Unlike baseball or tennis, where left-handedness can be a strategic advantage, lefty golfers have been treated as odd. Left-handed equipment was virtually non-existent for the game’s first four centuries, and even contemporary champions such as JoAnne Carner, Johnny Miller and Sam Snead were convinced to not play from their natural side.

“It’s a right-handed society and people think that’s just the way you do it,” says Steve Flesch, a lefty on the PGA Tour. “Everybody has grown up thinking that right-handed is the way to do almost everything. I think it’s going to be like that forever.”

Well, not forever.

Golf is beginning to address the plight of left-handed players, to the point that in some circles they are flourishing. Witness the PGA Tour, which for a second straight year boasts an unprecedented six lefties – two of whom, Phil Mickelson and Mike Weir, have won in the last nine months, and a third, Kevin Wentworth, has finished second. Yet even those six may be joined in the coming years. Two club manufacturers report a significant rise in left-handed club sales to juniors, to as much as 15 percent of their annual stock, suggesting a growing acceptance among the next generation of players.

“Our [lefty] sales have doubled the last two years,” says David Drinkwater of LaJolla Golf. “There are a lot of factors. There are more kids coming into golf. And there are more lefties out of that group. In the past, kids automatically converted to right-handed. That’s not the case now.”

From a psychological perspective, forcing a youngster to switch can cause long-term damage. Dr. Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia, author of “The Left-Handed Syndrome,” points to research showing children who converted through force often stuttered, had difficulty in school, developed stress and, in severe cases, suffered from attention deficit disorder.

“There are some bad consequences,” Coren says. “Our research shows [switching] only works if you catch the individual at a very young age. You’ll always do better with your natural or dominant hand. With golfers, we found that whatever eye was more dominant, it was the same way with your dominant hand.”

And it would appear children are not the only ones staying on the left side. Major manufacturers report fractional increases each year in left-handed sales to adults, accounting for anywhere from 4 to 10 percent of those totals. One explanation for the range in sales is a new marketing strategy toward lefties and a diligence in offering a wide selection of left-handed equipment. And off-course discount stores, which 20 years ago stocked one or two lefty clubs, if any at all, now have dozens, not to mention specialty clubs like wedges and putters.

“Companies now put out a left-handed model when a new right-handed one is introduced,” says Walter Tripovich, proprietor of the Vermont-based Lefties Only specialty store. “There are more lefties now than there ever was.”

Still, left-handed touring pros face obstacles that their right-handed brethren don’t. For instance, Flesch must often go to representatives of equipment companies to try out a particular club, while right-handers have a steady diet of clubs readily available on the range. “We might get to hit it the next day or sometimes we might get to hit it the same day,” Flesch says.

Mickelson says manufacturers are generally six to 12 months behind with left-handed models. “It certainly makes it more difficult and challenging,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it’s discriminatory. It’s just not cost-effective.”

Equipment has always been the key for lefties. When clubs were cut from wood – long before steel, titanium, graphite and alloys figured into computer-aided design – clubmakers displayed disdain toward left-handed clubs. “It reverses, so to speak, their whole method of procedure in the making of clubs, and consequently entails a good deal of painstaking labour [sic],” author Jeff Ellis wrote in “The Clubmakers Art.”

“The clubs are invariably made by right-handed players, so that the question of their balance and ‘feel’ is largely a matter of chance. Only a left-handed player can make a left-handed club with any certainty that it will be a good one.”

Even as clubmaking was revolutionized the left-handed champion did little to increase product availability. Major Albert Lambert of St. Louis captured a gold medal at the 1900 Olympics in Paris, and nine years later Claude Felstead won the Australian Open. It would take some 80 years before left-handed equipment finally made any significant dents in the marketplace. In fact, it wasn’t until last year that left-handed cavity-backed forged irons became available to clubmakers, according to Bob Dodds, the technical director for the Professional Clubmakers Society. Because cast molds cost between $3,000 and $5,000, most manufacturers believed it was not financially savvy to cater to a small market of left-handed players.

“The market didn’t justify it,” says Ellis. “It’s a numbers game. I know MacGregor did a decent job in the 1950s and ‘60s, but there were very few models to choose from. Some of the smaller clubmakers simply couldn’t afford to do it.”

To some, Bob Charles of New Zealand might have been the left-hander’s equivalent to Jackie Robinson, especially when he won the 1963 British Open. But despite all of Charles’ heroics, lefties hardly flooded the fairways of top-notch competitive golf. They were playing the game, but not at an alarming rate of growth.

The National Association of Left-Handed Golfers, an organization devoted entirely to southpaws, had taken action in 1960 by approaching the First Flight Company of Chattanooga, Tenn., about producing high-quality equipment recommended by the NALG. One of the NALG’s long-standing members, John Mulkern of Jacksonville, Fla., noted in his 52-page handbook, “The History of Left-Handed Golfers,” that the association “was deeply indebted to the entire staff of First Flight for developing fine clubs available to southpaws today.”

Despite those efforts, lefties struggled. If a store or golf shop carried left-handed clubs, the number of sets could be counted on one hand. Some of those woes could directly be attributed to those teaching the game. Harry Gottlieb, in his book “Golf for Southpaws,” points out that “most golf pros would rather see a rattlesnake come up for a lesson than a southpaw.” Instructors used equipment as a selling point to switch players.

Dennis Palmer, like so many others in the 1970s, found himself at a crossroads as he prepared for his journey through the competitive world of junior golf. For two years, he played the game with a natural zest, taking advantage of the year-round pleasantries of the Arizona climate.

Then one day Palmer, who played left-handed, approached his instructor about some difficulties he was having with his game. The instructor suggested playing from the other side, which would force Palmer to forget every concept he had embraced and start basically from scratch. Most players would find such advice catastrophic. Palmer went with his teacher’s wisdom and ditched his left-handed clubs.

“Pros at the time were nowhere near as left-handed friendly as they are now,” says Palmer, who became a teaching pro in 1983. “If I were learning the game today, there’s no way I would have switched.”

Many teachers have now adopted different attitudes toward lefties. Rick Dytrych, who teaches at the Palm Beach (Fla.) Municipal Par-3 and is a lefty, asks each new student to swing from both sides of the ball to get a feel for the player’s comfort zone.

As a result, few new lefties are confronted with the prospect of switching. “It’s not the modern way of teaching,” Palmer says. “I was a product of that method, but you can’t validate it now.”

Despite the lefty-friendly attitude, the upper echelon of the junior ranks remains a righties world. In the past 10 years the only left-handed players named first-team All-Americans by the American Junior Golf Association were Edward Loar, who eventually became a member of the 1999 USA Walker Cup Team, and Bubba Watson. Mickelson was a three-time AJGA Player of the Year in the late-1980s. “We just don’t see a lot of them,” said Alan Cooper, a spokesman for the AJGA. “I think I saw two all of last year.” In fact, 1995 U.S. Junior Amateur champ D. Scott Hailes is left-handed, but plays golf right-handed.

Lori Stinson, the golf coach at Grand Valley State in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a lefty, recalled seeing a few southpaws during her playing days at Indiana. But she did have a left-handed teammate – Angela Buzminski from Canada, who was runner-up at the 1993 NCAA Women’s Championships. “It was unique,” Stinson said of two seasons with Buzminski. “I think there was one other lefty at the time [in the college ranks]. I’d guess there are under 10 female lefties right now. There’s a few more men.”

It certainly explains why there’s only one lefty – Charles – on the Senior PGA Tour. Then again, you won’t find any on the LPGA Tour. It’s been eight years since Judi Pavon played on the circuit, and then back to the 1970s and ‘80s to the days of Bonnie Bryant. Pavon, recently elevated from assistant to interim women’s coach at the University of Tennessee, recalled going to a junior clinic and being told to hit at the far end of the driving range so she wouldn’t take up two spots. “People asked me when I came out on tour why I never switched,” says Pavon. “It was just more natural for me to play lefty.”

It’s interesting to take note of the high number of lefties in the countries where hockey is the prevalent game. According to Royal Canadian Golf Association figures, for example, left-handed equipment accounts for 32 to 34 percent of the market. It’s a figure corroborated by David Eagar of Caltek Golf Equipment and Training Ltd. His Calgary-based company has sales figures in the 30 percent range. He says Quebec and the Maritime provinces are slightly higher, but in Newfoundland, the numbers are an astounding 50 percent.

In part, that’s because the first stick of choice for Canadian youngsters is a Cooper or CCM, not a driver or 7-iron. “That’s the way I shot in hockey and I was just comfortable with it,” says Weir, a Canadian and winner of last year’s Air Canada Championship. “I played hockey sooner than I played golf. It’s kind of a natural motion for me.” During the Bay Hill Invitational Pro-Am in March, one of Weir’s pro-am partners was Canadian Marc Pinkus, himself a lefty.

If you want to find a lot of lefties in one place south of the border, Hunter’s Run Golf and Racquet Club in Boynton Beach, Fla., might be the best spot. Of its 1,500 members, 96 are lefties (six percent) and each year they conduct their own left-handed tournament, replete with a clinic, where they’ll bring in a left-handed pro for instruction. Members even conduct their own swap meet of equipment for fellow lefties to try out.

“We had 21 teams this year,” says John Spiteri, the club’s director of golf. “I’ve been in the business for seven years and the strides in equipment for lefties have been tremendous. It used to be if you saw a lefty in your group, he was an odd ball. Now it’s not uncommon to play with a lefty every time I go out.”

(USGA Museum)