Sport: The charge of the left brigade ...and the golfers who were left behind

Brian Lara, John McEnroe and Ferenc Puskas have all exploited the peculiar advantages of being in the minority
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ONE SPORT where, far from left-handers being over-represented they are conspicuous by their absence, is golf, writes Matt Gatward. In the modern game it is just the American Phil Mickelson who springs to mind. There were no left-handed golfers in the top 250 on the European Tour in the 1980s, and while the 1990s have seen the Australians Richard Green and Greg Chalmers appearing on the list, Green is the only left- hander to have recorded a victory on the European Tour since 1974.

A common explanation is the lack of left-handed clubs available to junior golfers in the past, resulting in lefties having their progress hampered often to the extent of being forced to adopt a right-hander's swing. With golf being a two-handed game left-handers can, if forced, adapt and play the game with a right-hander's swing with the minimum of difficulty.

Denis Pugh, the golf coach, says: "There is no advantage, as there can be in other sports like serving left-handed in tennis, to being right or left-handed. There is no advantage being able to pull or push shots, you need a blend of the two. The golf swing is not a natural motion - as Hogan said, `if you are doing something naturally, you are probably doing it wrong'. So whether you are right-handed or left-handed, you have to train your body to perform the motion of the swing. Phil Mickelson could probably have learned the game just as well right-handed, and Nick Faldo left-handed."

The Zimbabwean Nick Price supports this theory. "The strange thing is that I am actually left-handed in any other two-handed game, but when I started playing golf we had but one left-handed club." Steve Flesch, an American on the US Tour, has encountered similar problems that forced him to begin playing the game right-handed before he eventually switched over to his natural left side. Russ Cochran, another American member of the US Tour, admits to starting off playing the game using a ladies' set because he could not find any other left-handed clubs.

It was not until the early Seventies that producers of golf equipment began seriously to develop the quality or type needed by the southpaw, and while left-handed clubs are more available today there is still not the same selection available as there is to the right-hander. Some specialist clubs are still only manufactured as right-handed.

The general poor quality of left-handed clubs has also been suggested by Bob Charles - the only left-hander to win a major - as a handicap that may have prevented players from reaching the top of the game. Charles has also said that because the majority of golfers play right-handed, courses are designed with the right-hander in mind. Therefore, the left- hander faces additional obstacles in reaching the elite.

It is not unreasonable to conclude that if leftie clubs were not readily available until 30 years ago this will have had a knock-on effect and that therein lies the reason for the absence of lefties on the European Tour over the last 20 years. That generation are also the ones who teach today's younger players. The lack of left-handed coaches who can deal with specific leftie problems may have resulted in less players reaching the elite.

The lack of coaches efficient or willing to train the left-hander is highlighted by the fact that in countries where course regulations are relaxed and golfers can play without a handicap or letter of referral from another club, such as Canada, the percentage of left-handers is nearer to the 30 per cent mark as opposed to the seven per cent in America and the United Kingdom. This suggests that where tuition is expected before a golfer is allowed to play on a course, golfers tend to be taught to play right-handed.

In golf, where no strategic advantage is gained in playing left-handed, there have been few lefties in the upper echelons. This seems to undermine the proposal that left-handers possess a neurological advantage in sport. However, many great players, such as Ben Hogan, Johnny Miller and Price, although they play right-handed, are actually left-handed. Given that, unlike cricket and tennis, there is no strategic advantage in playing golf left-handed, this fact coupled with the increase of lefties on the US Tour (Cochran, Flesch, Mike Weir) adds weight to the proposed neurological advantage related to being left-handed. Given a level playing field (equal standard and availability of leftie clubs and high quality coaching similar to cricket and tennis where left-handers are prevalent) the number of lefties should continue to grow until left-handed golfers are as over- represented in their sport as lefties are in other sports.