Monday, October 11

Golf’s Left Vs. Right Debate

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Whiffling Straits, a golf blog authored by Mike Zimmerman.

By Mike Zimmerman

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)


adeus said...

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.

In hockey the majority play left hand down, so actually the "righters" are often in greater demand.

On power play, you often want a defense player that plays from the right side to be on the left side of the ice, and vice versa. This allows one timers to be shot from the line. In normal play it can help if you play the other way round as you can stop/play the puck more easily on the sides. Of course there are massive differences how these are emphasized in various teams depending on strategy, players etc..

As a kid, they throw a stick to your hand and ask you on which side do you want to swing it. The majority say left hand down (from right handed people). I play hockey from the left, but golf from the right side.

GorillaGolfBlog said...

Hockey is a good example of lefties oftern playing right-side and visa-versa. Funnily enough a good friend of mine who was a professional hockey player started playing golf (well - 8-9 hcp) as a lefty. He took a lesson from a well-known professional in Florida who told him he would do better if he played golf righty! So he practiced and practiced - buying new clubs as well, of course. And his handicap did go down.

One other thing - ever notice how many professional sportsmen are are playing southpaw. I think their bodies are so well-balanced that they can play either side.

Jonas said...

I would like to add that Ben Hogan, arguably the best ball striker ever was a lefty, playing as right handed !

The Armchair Golfer said...

The hockey insight reminds me of that old joke, "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out." But instead, in this case, "I went to a golf blog and a hockey discussion broke out." Thanks for the comments.

Denny said...

Interesting the pull with the left hand (right hand golfer)theory. My thoughts are that at the moment of impact, the right handed golfer has more snap with his right wrist through the ball than with the backward snap he generates with his left hand. Thus, more power.

left handed golfer said...

The first day we put a club in my sons hand he hit both RH and LH irons. All shots were terrible the 1st time. The local pro said what feels better and he said from the left, so he became a LH'ed player ... eventually got his handicap to the + side below scratch. Sure getting the right equipment wasn't easy, it just took 10 years to finalize his bag of sticks. A lot is made in LH now so there is no reason to switch a player from left to right. Also depends on their dominant eye. If right eye dominant might be better to play LH'ed.

Anonymous said...

I'm a lefty who plays righty. My decision was the simple fact that when I was a teen all my friends were righty so that's how I learned to swing. It feels totally natural and I couldn't imagine playing lefty. I've tried and it feels completely alien.

I'm very dominant lefty too. Interestingly enough I can play drums and guitar righty. I'm a pretty good at guitar too. When I tell other guitarists that I'm a left their jaw drops.

Muscle memory and practice defines an individuals skills at many different activities. If it feels natural and your skills are always continuing to get better then you can choose either hand and be successful. When I took golf lessons in college the teacher said to stick to playing right handed because he didn't see anything in my mechanics that glared at playing with the "wrong hand".

There is a mental factor that people who play opposite hand at anything. The whole "would I be better if I played with the correct hand?". It really can't be answered. But is starting from scratch worth it? For most it isn't.

Unknown said...

I play hockey oh but play right wing. I hit left in baseball but throw right. I write and golf right. But I have my hands like in hockey left hand down on my right (apparently that makes my form bad) I hit about 250 as a righty but I would do much better if I could find some left clubs.... I have a budget of 0 any advice lol

Unknown said...

this is a dliema. I played ledty all my life and switched to right to get rid of bad habits (reverse pivot). I know drive the ball and hoot all long woods and hybrids right handed but from the 7 up i go left handed for feel. much better feel bumping, pitching left than right. putt right but still as good left. high handicap 24. but feel it will come down if i hit short feel shots" naturally left, and full swings right. am i wrong?


The Armchair Golfer said...

Thanks for sharing, Don. That's interesting. I don't think I've heard of someone playing both ways like you, unless they putted from one side even though they hit from the other. I don't know what to tell you.