Grand Slam of Golf
Weir
Photo Credit: Scott Halleran

Left alone to flourish

By Bob Harig

The letter remains in his office, and Mike Weir might want to put it close to the sterling silver replica Masters Trophy that is sure to take a prominent place among his tournament artifacts.

It's no stretch to say that one indirectly led to the other. Some 20 years ago, when Weir was a Canadian teenager tinkering with both golf and hockey, he wrote to golf great Jack Nicklaus for some advice. Weir penned the letter with his right hand but played golf left-handed.

Weir asked the Golden Bear if he should switch sides when it came to golf.

"He wrote back and said to stick to your natural swing,'' Weir said.

And there began the process to golf immortality.

Weir in April became the first left-hander to win the Masters and the second lefty to win a major championship, joining Bob Charles who 40 years ago defeated Phil Rodgers in a 36-hole playoff at the British Open.

By winning at Augusta National, Weir became the first player to qualify for the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, and was later joined by U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, British Open champion Ben Curtis and PGA Championship winner Shaun Micheel.

Those three play golf right-handed, but Weir is used to feeling alone in such company.

Only seven left-handed golfers have ever won on the PGA Tour, and 21 of their 37 victories have come from one man: Phil Mickelson. Other than Mickelson, Charles and Weir, only four lefties have won tournaments - Russ Cochran, Ernie Gonzalez, Sam Adams and Steve Flesch. Other than Mickelson, Weir and Flesch, the only other left-hander with full exempt status on the PGA Tour is Greg Chalmers.

And there is just one lefty on the LPGA Tour, Angela Buzminski. Bonnie Bryant, who captured the 1974 Bill Branch Classic, is the only left-handed golfer to win an LPGA event.

It is no coincidence. Just as it is a right-handed world for things such as stick shifts, scissors and school tests, golf has also been known to discriminate when it comes to lefties.

"I think back to when I started playing as a junior, and the equipment was an issue,'' Weir said. 'You couldn't always get the same equipment, but now that's not an issue. I think you'll see more left-handed golfers,'' Yes, things are changing. . . slowly. Weir's major victory and run at Player of the Year honors should open up some eyes. So should the success of Flesch, another lefty who won his first tour title earlier this year in New Orleans. Then there is Mickelson, the best player to never win a major. He has been a prominent player for a decade.

Most estimates place the number of left-handers at 10 percent of the population. The National Association of Left-Handed Golfers says 7% swing from the left side. In Canada, the percentage is believed to be higher because of the hockey influence and the fact that left-wingers need to be just as prevalent as right-wingers.

Many believe the number of lefties would increase if natural left-handers weren't discouraged from playing the game that way. Len Mattiace, who lost to Weir in a playoff at the Masters, is left-handed, but plays golf right-handed and was told it would be better to play golf that way. Obviously, he didn't write to Nicklaus.

He is not alone.

Past major championship winners Nick Price (1992 and '94 PGA), Johnny Miller (1973 U.S. Open, '76 British) and Curtis Strange (1988 and '89 U.S. Open) are natural lefties who play the game right-handed. David Graham ('79 PGA, '81 U.S. Open) was left-handed when he turned pro but, amazingly, switched to playing right-handed to become a major champion.

LPGA Hall of Famers and major winners JoAnne Carner and Beth Daniel are also right-handed golfers who are left-handed.

The theory put forth by many experts is that a lefty who plays right-handed is at an advantage: his dominant side, the left side, is very important in a right-handed swing; the left side drives through the ball.

"But there are still times when I might have a problem with the swing because of my left-hand dominance,'' Price said. "There are advantages for a lefty to play right, but the biggest disadvantage back then was equipment.''

This, of course, works both ways. Mickelson and Charles are natural right-handers who only play golf left-handed.

"Right-handed people do almost everything that way, write, kick a ball, look through a telescope,'' Charles said. "We're right-side dominant. I think it's an advantage for me to play from the right side of the ball; I'm looking to my right with my stronger right eye, playing with my strong right side.''

Does it matter?

"There's no reason why a player shouldn't play left-handed,'' said golf instructor David Leadbetter. "I know they've had problems with equipment and instruction, but there's no physical reason why a left-hander can't be as good as a right-hander.''

Perhaps it's mental. Lefties are continually burdened with the unoriginal line whenever they step to the tee: "Hey, you're on the wrong side of the ball!'' Yep, they've never heard that one before.

And lefties have to spend plenty of time looking through life as a mirror does. They watch an instructor on the Golf Channel and must reverse everything. In magazines or instruction manuals, they must constantly remind themselves that the left foot is their right, the left-hand their right. . . unless the instruction gets very specific.

There is help, however: Weir wrote a book, "On Course.' Charles' book is 'Left-Handers Golf Book.' Steve Anderson wrote 'On the Other Hand' and has a website, www.leftteegolf.com.

And all the major equipment companies offer left-handed clubs. Some, such as Cleveland Golf and Taylor-Made, offer left-handed versions of every club they make. Others have limited supply of left-handed clubs or will get it special ordered. It is a small, but growing, part of their business.

Weir is proof that it can be done.

Being left-handed put Weir at a disadvantage in terms of finding clubs and equipment, but perhaps more burdensome was his upbringing. Weir was raised in Sarnia, Ontario, about 60 miles northeast of Detroit, where the weather is more conducive to slap shots than chip shots.

"I was really just a summer golfer,'' Weir said. "I would play hockey through the winter and fall and spring and then play golf in the summer. It was just a seasonal sport and I didn't grind too hard in the offseason. But I did hit a lot of balls. My dad put a net in our garage to hit balls into. And we would fish balls out of the pond at my golf course and save those. So on a decent day in the winter, we would go pound them out into the lake. I grew up on Lake Huron. That was the extent of my golf, really.''

It wasn't until Weir attended Brigham Young University and started playing golf for the Cougars that his game blossomed. And it still took a while for Weir to make it to the PGA Tour.

He toiled on the Canadian Tour, which is a notch below the developmental Nationwide Tour. He went to Australia and Asia. There were seven trips to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. And though he turned professional in 1992, Weir's first season on the PGA Tour didn't come until 1998.

"It was a long road,'' Weir said. "It took me six years out of college to get on tour. And those times missing Q-School and playing overseas and the commitment that takes, not only for myself, but for my family, my wife. It's a lot of time away. She (Bricia) caddied for me at odd times.

"And it's unbelievable progression that I've finally gotten here. But even back then, I think I believed that I would get here somehow. I would figure it out. My golf swing wasn't very good back then and I knew I would kind of figure out a way to do that.''

In 1999, Weir's second full season, he broke through with seven top-10 finishes, including his first victory at the Air Canada Championship. That was preceded, however, by a final-round pairing with eventual PGA Championship winner Tiger Woods, who went on to win his second major title as Weir shot 80.

Weir went on to capture two of the tour's biggest events, the 2000 World Golf Championships American Express Championship in Spain and the 2001 Tour Championship.

This year, he won the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, outdueling Jay Haas on the back nine. Then he won the Nissan Open, rallying to defeat Charles Howell.

Now he's a major championship winner, one of just two lefties in an elite club.

Lefties everywhere rejoiced.

Other Items
  • 20 questions (12/1/03) — When was the last time Masters champion Mike Weir paid for a golf ball? Or what's Jim Furyk's favorite golf hole, Ben Curtis' dream foursome, or Shaun Micheel's favorite club? Find out in our exclusive 20 Questions with this year's PGA Grand Slam participants and caddies.
  • Scaling golf's major mountains (12/1/03) — Four times a year golf's best gather to try and climb that final rung to greatness on the ladder that will define their career. Jim Huber, Turner Sports' Emmy Award-winning essayist, examines what separates a major champion from the rest.
  • Left alone to flourish (12/1/03) — When Mike Weir was a promising junior in his native Canada, he wrote a letter to the great Jack Nicklaus asking if a young left-hander should try to learn the game right-handed. The Golden Bear wrote back, and the advice he offered made Weir a Masters champion.
  • Furyk finds home in Hawaii (12/1/03) — Considering the career success he's enjoyed in Hawaii -- two wins and nearly $2 million in winnings since he joined the PGA Tour in 1994 -- it should come as no surprise that U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk and his wife built a second home on the island of Maui.

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