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Right swing for lefties wins a major backing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In subtle ways, Mike Weir's playoff victory in last year's Masters reverberated far beyond the little Georgia town that the world pays attention to one week a year.

History was made in Augusta, as a different kind of minority had won the Masters.

Weir, 33, who grew up outside Toronto, not only became the first Canadian to win a major championship, but he also became the first left-hander in 40 years to win one of golf's four Grand Slam events.

All over the world, a growing but distinctly small species - the left-handed golfer - hailed Weir's victory.

Though Weir admitted at the time that winning for Canada was a bit more important to him than winning for left-handers, the world's fifth-ranked player knows that his victory resonated with a certain segment of the golfing public that has long been derided for hitting from the wrong side of the tee.

"I'm signing autographs or something and they'll say, 'I'm a lefty too,' " said Weir, who'll try to defend his title when the Masters begins tomorrow at Augusta National. "They're happy there's another lefty out there doing something."

For years since Bob Charles won the British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in 1963, lefty golfers had been waiting for one of their own to win another major.

Left-hand breakthrough

For the past decade, as left-handers became more prominent on the PGA Tour, many figured it would be the player called "Lefty" - Phil Mickelson. He is, after all, the most accomplished left-handed player in history.

While Mickelson has come close in nearly a dozen majors, including a tie for third last year at Augusta, it was Weir who broke through.

His sudden-death playoff victory was certainly great for Steve Anderson's business.

Anderson, author of the lefties' guide, On The Other Hand and the self-proclaimed only left-handed Master Professional in the PGA of America, noticed a trend at the Florida course where he teaches during the weeks and months that followed Weir's playoff victory.

"I had about eight right-handed students who did everything else left-handed ask me to switch them back to their natural swings," Anderson said last week from Fort Myers, Fla., where he works for the Ken Venturi Golf Schools. "They're not embarrassed to be left-handed players anymore."

It was also great for Mark Johnson's business.

Johnson, a former mid-level manager for Microsoft who retired with a seven-figure nest egg at age 37 in 1998, had already established a Web site devoted to left-handed golfers. In the aftermath of Weir's victory, left-teegolf.com started getting many more visitors.

"We get about 250,000 hits a day, about 150,000 page views and 110,000 unique visits a day," said Johnson, who is right-handed and runs his Web site out of his home in the Seattle suburbs.

When Weir won, stories were retold about the time he wrote Jack Nicklaus as a teen looking for advice about his game and how Nicklaus wrote back, encouraging Weir not to change his "natural" swing.

Can you imagine what the golf world would have been like had other lefties been given the same direction? Or if the equipment for lefties was on a par with that being used by right-handers?

Had there been a couple of left-handed clubs in the caddie yard back in Fort Worth, Texas, all those years ago, a tough-as-nails fellow named Ben Hogan might have become the game's first left-handed star. Hogan won nine major championships, all right-handed.

Around that time, the legendary Harry Vardon summed up the feelings of his and later generations about left-handed golfers. Asked once if he had seen a lefty play golf, Vardon reportedly muttered, "Not one worth a damn."

Hogan wasn't the only prominent left-hander to play right-handed. So did two former U.S. Open champions, Ken Venturi and Johnny Miller. Even Len Mattiace, the journeyman whose double bogey on the first playoff hole opened the door for Weir to win the Masters, signed his check left-handed after losing right-handed.

Currently, there are four left-handers playing regularly on the PGA Tour: Weir, Mickelson, Steve Flesch and Australian Greg Chalmers; a fifth, Russ Cochran, is back on the tour after regaining his card at Q school last fall. Charles is still playing occasionally on the Champions tour and Angela Buzminski is the only regular lefty on the LPGA Tour.

The National Left-handers Golfers Association (NLGA) estimates 7 percent of golfers are lefties even though about 10 percent of the general population is left-handed. There are a multitude of reasons for that, such as few teachers who felt comfortable with lefties and the lack of equipment until recently.

Right clubs for lefties

When manufacturers started making left-handed clubs, they turned out only a small fraction of the number that were produced for right-handers. While left-handed clubs have become easier to obtain in the past couple of decades, some golf shops don't carry a lot for fear of them gathering dust. Some don't even have them to rent.

"I worked at a place called Poppy Hills [a public course in Livermore, Calif.] and they only had one left-handed putter," said Wally Mattson, the president of the Northern California Left-handed Golfers Association who works for the John Jacobs Golf Schools.

Anderson, the left-handed teaching pro, said that he recently experienced a major breakthrough when he received a set of Mickelson irons made by Titleist exclusively for lefties. "I never thought I'd see the day that you could get lefty-only clubs," said Anderson.

Mattson, 65, can remember when his schoolteachers would try to use their influence to make him a righty.

"They'd sneak up behind you and give you a whack on the knuckles if you were writing with your left hand," said Mattson. "You had to do everything right-handed."

For years, left-handed players were turned around by those teaching them the game. There were some, such as Flesch, who started playing right-handed but eventually went back to the, uh, dark side.

Instruction wasn't that easy to find, either. While players such as Charles and Mickelson are actually natural right-handers who learned to swing from the left side by looking in the mirror as their parents swung right-handed, finding someone who could teach a natural lefty was, and is, still an issue.

Getting hired as a left-handed instructor can also be a problem.

When Anderson was being interviewed by Venturi's organization to teach more than a decade ago, he never mentioned what side of the tee he swung from. It wasn't until he and a right-handed pro were asked to give a demonstration that his dirty little secret came out.

"I went up to address the ball, and one of the executives said, 'What is this all about?' " recalled Anderson. "Ken Venturi then said, 'Isn't that nice? Now we can offer instruction from a left-hander and a right-hander.' I never brought it up because I didn't think I would have been hired."

This fall, Venturi's organization will hold the first ever golf school for left-handers at Mirror Lakes Golf Club, where Anderson teaches. Those who might attend include some of the 1,500 members of the NLGA, which will hold its national championship this June in Ohio.

The sight of 150 left-handed golfers on the range is a bit strange, even to lefties.

"When you see all those golfers swinging left-handed, it makes you stop for a minute," said NLGA chairman Trey Owen, who owns computer training schools in Austin, Texas.

Unlike golf tournaments dominated by right-handers, those that allow only left-handers are also part swap meet.

"Everybody is looking at each other's clubs," said Owen. "I just bought a sand wedge from somebody."

Golf, of course, is not the only sport or even profession where there is a perceived bias.

According to a story last year in the National Post of Canada, dentistry couldn't be practiced left-handed north of the border until 15 years ago. Polo in England was not allowed to be played left-handed, and one of its most famous participants, Prince Charles, had to learn how to play right-handed.

A sport that seems to favor left-handers is hockey, which might explain why a much larger percentage of golfers in Canada (an estimated 18 percent) are left-handed than in the United States and why the junior program in Canada boasts 40 percent left-handers.

"Because of Mike Weir's victory, we see a tremendous upside in the Canadian market," said left-teegolf.com's Johnson, whose Web site has been geared mainly to instruction (by Anderson and Buzminski) and to instructional aides, but will soon start selling and trading equipment.

It was the businessman in Anderson that formed the Web site, after a conversation with a friend suggested that pro shops were not stocked with necessities such as golf gloves for left-handers. Within 90 days, Anderson had his site up and running.

In truth, Johnson is much like the majority of golfers who don't pay attention to the fact that most courses feature left-to-right doglegs and more trouble on the left than on the right, meaning that lefties who slice add more strokes to their scorecard than righties with the same affliction.

"I didn't [care] about left-handers until I started the Web site," said Johnson. He does now, and if a lefty again wins this year's Masters, so might a few more.

The Masters

When: Tomorrow through Sunday

Where: Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.

Course: Par 72, 7,290 yards

Tomorrow's TV: USA Network, 4 p.m. (live) and 8 p.m. (tape)

Defending champion: Mike Weir

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