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Hefty Lefties Not long ago left-handed golfers were taken lightly. Today a half dozen of them are throwing their weight around on Tour

March 12, 2001
March 12, 2001

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March 12, 2001

Hefty Lefties Not long ago left-handed golfers were taken lightly. Today a half dozen of them are throwing their weight around on Tour

Harry Vardon, a defining figure in golf in the early 1900s and the
man who gave us the grip that bears his name, had a firm grasp of
the situation when he was asked to identify the game's best
left-handed player. "Never saw one who was worth a damn," Vardon
said. Thus was born the left-handed compliment, and for decades
being a lefty was golf's version of the scarlet letter.

This is an article from the March 12, 2001 issue

Fast-forward to the latter part of the century, to when a
13-year-old boy, newly serious about the game, wrote Jack
Nicklaus to ask whether he should switch from left-handed to
right-handed. "Stick to your natural left-handed swing,"
Nicklaus wrote back, "and work hard."

That 13-year-old was Mike Weir, who's 30 now, still a lefty and
not only Canada's best player but also one of the finest golfers
in the world. You had it right for a long time, Harry, but not
anymore. Welcome to golf's golden age of lefties. Six left-handed
players regularly tee it up on the Tour these days, and Harry,
they all got game.

Phil Mickelson, with 18 victories at age 30, is the second-best
player in the world, last year twice beating the No. 1 man when
they went head-to-head. Certainly Mickelson is the best player
without a major, a glitch he is likely to correct soon, Tiger
Woods notwithstanding.

When Weir, a superb putter, won last year's season-ending
American Express Championship in Spain, he took home $1 million
but also joined Mickelson on that dubious list of the best
majorless players. Last week he played well enough to win the
Genuity Championship at Miami's Doral Resort & Spa, and probably
would have if Joe Durant, the guy who shot a kajillion under to
win last month's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, had not done so again
on the weekend. Durant finished 67-65 in strong, blustery winds,
rounds that were even more impressive than Weir's 10-under 62 on
Thursday, when the black-and-Blue Monster was battered by a
barrage of low scores. Weir wound up second, two shots behind
Durant.

One of Weir's strengths is his Ben Hogan-like focus. When
distracted, he stops and then goes through his entire preshot
routine, starting with pulling the headcover off the club. During
one shot last Saturday, leaves kept blowing over his ball as he
was about to hit, so he put his club back in the bag and started
over three times. Later he said, "I will not hit a shot until I'm
ready." At 5'9" and 155 pounds, Weir even looks a bit like the
Wee Ice Mon. He is also a solid ball striker and a genius with a
sand wedge.

The best swing among the lefties, though, belongs to Steve
Flesch. Although he has yet to win a Tour event, only Woods, with
17, had more Top 10 finishes last season than Flesch (13). Kevin
Wentworth, an All-America at Oklahoma State in 1991, and Greg
Chalmers of Australia, a short-game specialist, fall into the
up-and-comer category. Russ Cochran, the lone lefty on Tour for
five years in the late '80s and early '90s, has survived for
almost two decades without getting voted off the island.

Without a doubt, the lefties have landed. Ten percent of the U.S.
population is left-handed, and about 7% of American golfers are
southpaws. "We're not a novelty anymore," says Flesch. Lefties,
though, have never gotten any respect--at least they haven't
gotten respect for being lefties. Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso,
Frank Sinatra and Mark Twain were lefties. Johnny Miller, Byron
Nelson and Curtis Strange are, like Hogan, lefties who learned to
play golf right-handed. For years Bob Charles was the lone
standard-bearer for golfing lefties. His victory in the '63
British Open remains the only triumph by a left-hander in a
major.

Today Weir is the pride of Canada, where left-handed hockey
players abound. He was named the country's male athlete of 2000
by the Canadian Press and Broadcast News, beating out a couple of
gold-medal-winning Olympians: triathlete Simon Whitfield and
freestyle wrestler Daniel Igali. (To illustrate just how hot golf
is in the Great White North, Lorie Kane was voted 2000's top
female athlete, the first time golfers swept the award.)

The soft-spoken Weir has been in the national eye ever since he
won the 1986 Canadian junior title by a stroke, making sand saves
on the last five holes. He spent years shuttling between the
Canadian tour in the summer and the Australasian tour in the
winter but had an epiphany at the '94 Canadian Open while warming
up on the range next to Nick Price, one of the Tour's finest ball
strikers. Says Weir, "I watched Nick and realized there was no
way I could compete with him unless I changed my swing. I had
never really thought about my swing until that day."

Weir embarked on a three-step plan. Step one: Read Hogan's
classic Five Lessons. Step two: Study the swings of Price and
Nick Faldo. Step three: Find a coach. He settled on Mike Wilson,
and together they refined Weir's fast-paced swing.

His career has been on the upswing ever since. Weir won the PGA
Tour's Q school in the fall of '98, and the next summer he made a
name for himself by playing well enough to be paired twice with
Woods in the final group on Sunday. At the Western Open he
trailed by four shots going into the round and held his own,
shooting a 70 and finishing second to Woods. A month later, at
the PGA at Medinah, he was tied for the lead going into the final
round but ballooned to an 80 while Woods held off Sergio Garcia
to win his second major.

Wayne Gretzky--a boyhood idol of Weir's--called that night and left
Weir a message in which he told how the first time he reached the
Stanley Cup finals, with the Edmonton Oilers in 1983, the Oilers
were humiliated by the New York Islanders in four straight games.
Weir took the implied advice to heart. Three weeks later he shot
back-to-back 64s during his breakthrough Tour victory, the Air
Canada Championship in Vancouver. In a single year he had gone
from Q school to top 30 on the money list.

Weir writes right-handed, throws left-handed and when playing
tennis serves lefty and volleys righty. At last year's Canadian
Skins Game, Mickelson and Weir switched clubs with righties
Garcia and Fred Couples on a par-3 hole. "It was a 170-yard shot,
and all four of us hit the green," Weir says. "Then we all
three-putted."

Yes, there's definitely something about lefties. Flesch took up
golf as a righty because his father played that way but switched
to the port side as a youngster. During a British Open practice
round last summer at St. Andrews, Flesch switched bags with Vijay
Singh on the 18th hole and played from the opposite side. "We
both hit great drives about 100 yards from the green, about a
foot from each other," Flesch says. "Then we both chili-dipped
wedge shots. He beat me--I ended up making a 6, and he made a 5.
Vijay is hands-down the best switch-hitter on Tour. A lot of guys
can't even hit the ball with my clubs."

Why has it taken so long for lefties to arrive? Old attitudes,
like Vardon's, and a Catch-22: Young players used to be
encouraged to turn around because of the scarcity of left-handed
equipment. Equipment-makers, though, didn't produce many
left-handed clubs because there were so few left-handed players.
Jim McLean, director of instruction at Doral, was head pro at
Sleepy Hollow Country Club outside New York City when Charles
twice won the Senior tour event played there. "Bob said the
equipment for him was inferior," McLean says. "Club pros used to
teach left-handers to play right-handed because it was
supposedly an advantage, which is laughable. I don't think
there's any disadvantage to playing left-handed. We'll be seeing
more lefties."

Not in women's golf, however, for lefties remain rare. Says
McLean, "I sponsor a national junior tour, and to be honest, I
can't think of a single left-handed girl. That's almost
unbelievable."

Seventeen years have passed since Nicklaus heard from that
curious Canadian teenager. Weir still has the letter. He had it
framed. "I'm sure glad Jack didn't tell me to switch," he says.

Sorry, Harry.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY GOING FOR THE GOAL Weir (above) has interjected himself into a race with Mickelson to become the second lefty to win a major.COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND

Flesch Facts

Six left-handers will make frequent appearances on Tour this
year. Here's the skinny on those players, plus a left-handed
compliment on each by one of their own, Steve Flesch (right).

Greg Chalmers

Age: 27 World Rank: 90 Tour wins: 0
Last win: 1998 Australian Open
Bet you didn't know: Chalmers's parents own a McDonald's in
Perth, Australia.
Left-handed compliment: "His nickname is Snake (as in snake
charmer). He has a solid short game and, like me, he's a driver
hunter."

Russ Cochran

Age: 42 World Rank: 213 Tour wins: 1
Last win: 1991 Western Open
Bet you didn't know: Cochran's then 14-year-old son, Ryan, missed
a playoff in the qualifier for the '98 FedEx St. Jude Classic by
a shot.
Left-handed compliment: "A great putter, he's struggling with his
irons. I call him Coach because his swing has more moves than a
third-base coach giving signals."

Steve Flesch

Age: 33 World Rank: 49 Tour wins: 0
Last win: 1997 Buy.com Tour Championship
Bet you didn't know: Die-hard Cincinnati Reds fan, so give him a
break; he's suffered enough.
Left-handed compliment on himself: "Good iron player, streaky
putter. Right now I am tamed fury on the golf course. My caddie's
nickname is Octopus because I'm always pitching clubs at him."

Phil Mickelson

Age: 30 World Rank: 2 Tour wins: 18
Last win: 2001 Buick Invitational
Bet you didn't know: Lefty (Arizona State) is one of only three
four-time first-team All-Americas. David Duval (Georgia Tech) and
Gary Hallberg (Wake Forest) are the others.
Left-handed compliment: "Phil plays aggressively 100 percent of
the time. He's out to win and nothing else. I like a guy who
isn't afraid to take chances. When his putter is on, he's tough
to beat."

Mike Weir

Age: 30 World Rank: 15 Tour wins: 2
Last win: 2000 American Express Championship at Valderrama
Bet you didn't know: Weir skated with the Washington Capitals
during their training camp in 1999.
Left-handed compliment: "A consistent ball striker and super
putter. He has a good head on his shoulders."

Kevin Wentworth

Age: 32 World Rank: 235 Tour wins: 0
Last win: 1997 Philippines Open
Bet you didn't know: Wentworth is ambidextrous, and he once shot
a 42 for nine holes playing right-handed.
Left-handed compliment: "Wenty has such a solid swing and he
manages his game so well that I'm surprised he has not enjoyed
more success out there."