Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Whiffling Straits, a golf blog authored by Mike Zimmerman.
By Mike Zimmerman
Special to ARMCHAIR GOLF
FOUR-TIME MAJOR WINNER and perennial world No. 2 Phil “Lefty” Mickelson is right-handed. So is 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir. And so, for that matter, is tennis great Rafael Nadal. Yet each of these guys has succeeded wildly at their respective sports playing from the sinister side.
What’s up with that?
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.
But did it make him a better golfer?
The Case of Mike Weir
Mike Weir, being from Canada, has a different story. Like most young boys in the Great White North, Weir’s first love was 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. It probably didn’t hurt that in hockey it’s helpful to have left-handed shooters playing on the left side of the ice (hockey players, am I right in this?), putting left-handed players 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.
“Switch-hitting” the other way (lefties playing righty) is more common still. From what I've read, some 15 percent of the population at large is left-handed, only about 10 percent of golfers overall play that way. This is not likely due, however, to thinking they’ll have an advantage that way; it’s simply because there are a lot more right-handed clubs sitting around in basements and garages. Often, lefty boys and girls are forced to learn on whatever equipment they can find—which far more often than not is right-handed.
This may explain why natural lefties Greg Norman (world No. 1 for 331 weeks) and Curtis Strange (a back-to-back U.S. Open champion) play right-handed. (The plot thickens!)
So certain questions remain unanswered: What role, if any did “the big switch” play in the success of Mickelson and Weir? (Or Norman and Strange, on the other hand.) Would they, could they, have succeeded as righties? Given the success of these four great champions, is a golfer potentially better off learning to play from the opposite side?
What do you think? Is there a potential advantage to be had playing from the opposite side? And if so, would it have to be learned from the start or could an old dog potentially learn this new trick?
Mike Zimmerman is a writer who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Visit his golf blog, Whiffling Straits.
(Image: Little Zey, Uncle Rich/Flickr)