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TRUE LIFE

A one-sided contest

Left-handed golfers, long made to feel they have no rights, unite and come out swinging.

July 05, 2006|Bob Baker | Special to The Times

Las Vegas — BLAME my parents.

Dad was always working, so it fell to Mom to teach me one of the most important male rituals, and to her lasting guilt she did it backward: Mom, who was left-handed, innocently showed her right-handed son how to swing a baseball bat as a lefty. That meant that when I finally took up golf eight years ago, I would swing left-handed -- and would be made to feel odd, strange and weird.

Imagine, then, the feeling of salvation I experienced on a hellishly hot morning recently when I walked onto the lush driving range of a Las Vegas golf course and saw a line of three-dozen fellow outcasts -- lefty golfers! -- taking their practice swings. There was only one righty in sight, and a lefty or two was good-naturedly razzing him. It reminded me of a moment in "Field of Dreams" when the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, banned from baseball for gambling, is resurrected 70 years later and asks, "Is this heaven?"

For the next four days, I was no longer a member of a taunted minority. I was one of 110 people playing in the 71st annual tournament of the National Assn. of Left-Handed Golfers. You heard me. This is America, where we cherish the right to mobilize in the face of the tiniest of social slights.

The NALG, which claims 2,500 members, exists because of this statistical conundrum: Although left-handed people comprise anywhere from 10% to 15% of the U.S. population, left-handed golfers count for only 5% to 7% of the 25 million Americans who golf. (By contrast, more than 40% of nonpitching major league baseball players bat left or switch-hit.)

If you're a lefty golfer, you must tolerate being advised by some witty right-hander that "you're standing on the wrong side of the ball." The right-handers you play with will park their carts in a manner that impairs your field of vision. You'll have less access to golf clubs -- a problem that, as late as the 1970s, encouraged many left-handed novices to give up and learn to golf right-handed. When you read instructional materials you will have to convert "right" to "left" and vice versa -- a major headache when you're trying to coordinate your right hip and left foot. If you are golfing in a quartet with three right-handers, you'll watch wistfully as they try out a new driver one of them has bought.

All of these annoyances disappeared during the NALG tournament, held at the Paiute Golf Resort, which rises out of the desert 20 miles north of the Vegas Strip. We were the dominant culture.

"If there's a righty in the area," joked Herbert "Pete" Willis, a 65-year-old retired commercial pilot from Chamblee, Ga., one of the golfers I was paired with, "he looks out there and sees one, two, three, four lefties and gets ready to call the newspaper and tell them something strange is happening -- and then he sees two, three, four lefties behind them. I think it's great."

Lefty inroads

That point was widely felt but rarely voiced. This was not a political convention. It was a golf tournament, and golfers -- even horrible golfers like me, struggling to break 100 -- are about as introspective on the course as a Clint Eastwood character. Silent concentration on the next shot is often as important as talent, and there were a handful of very good lefty amateurs here, scoring as low as 65.

"It is as intense as any right-handed amateur tournament," said 70-year-old Steve Melnichuk, a former physics teacher and country-western musician from Portland, Ore., who finished second in the 70-and-older division.

Melnichuk is lucky. One of his regular playing partners is left-handed, so he doesn't feel as isolated as most of us lefties. That fact alone illustrates that we're not the hopeless outcasts we used to be. As little as a decade ago, many golfing enthusiasts were unaware of any successful left-handed golfing pros. Then in 2003 and 2004, two left-handers -- Mike Weir and Phil Mickelson -- won the Masters tournament, the most burnished trophy in golf.

Today Mickelson, whose nickname is "Lefty," is popularly regarded as the world's best golfer next to Tiger Woods, Mickelson's recent blow-up at the U.S. Open notwithstanding. (He's actually right-handed, but as a kid started swinging lefty to mirror his right-handed father.) A rookie left-hander on the Professional Golfers' Assn. tour, Bubba Watson, hits the ball so hard and efficiently that Woods has called him "the future of golf."

This could not have been imagined in 1925, when a forgotten group of 20 men organized the first lefty golf tournament in New England, willing to absorb what NALG's official history describes as "the scorn and derision of their right-handed brethren." In the '30s, a left-handed pro from St. Louis named Ben Richter wrote to 1,300 "club professionals" at courses across the nation seeking the names of left-handed players. He unearthed about 5,000 leads, and in 1936, 147 left-handed golfers from 24 states gathered in St. Louis for the first national lefty championship tournament.

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