Golf World Makes it Right for Lefties


The letter is almost as famous as the green jacket Mike Weir won at the Masters.
Weir was 13, just starting to shift his focus from hockey to golf, when he wrote Jack Nicklaus for advice. The young Canadian lefty wanted to know whether he would be better off swinging from the right side.
``I just told him what I would tell any youngster,'' Nicklaus recalled. ``If you're a natural on one side or the other, I don't recommend changing. It was just a short letter with my advice, but I don't think I've ever sent one to a future Masters champion.''
It might be the last one Nicklaus needs to send.
While the number of left-handed golfers remains low -- industry leaders estimate it anywhere from 4 percent to 7 percent in the United States -- equipment for lefties is becoming available more quickly.
Only two years ago, it was common to see Weir, Steve Flesch, Greg Chalmers and other lefties snooping through each others' bags to see what they were playing. Hot new products made it to the right-handers first. Lefties had to wait as long as two months.
For amateurs, it was even worse.
``When I was starting out in junior golf, the equipment issue was a bit of a factor,'' Weir said. ``That was the tough thing. Now it's not an issue. Fathers changing their sons to right-handed I think is no longer an issue. I think you'll see more lefties out there.''
Manufacturers are doing their part, although it's hard to fault them for not making more left-handed equipment when it represents only about 5 percent of its sales.
``When you're working on a tool or a part (to build a club), it's still a fixed cost,'' said Titleist chief Wally Uihlein, who plays golf left-handed. ``If your market is only 2 percent, you have to make a strategic decision.''
Callaway Golf said 5 percent of its drivers, fairway metals, irons and putters, and 4 percent of its wedges, are made for lefties. Spokesman Larry Dorman said the company had $9.5 million in sales last year.
``It's not a big business, but we're not losing money on it,'' Dorman said.
That's a big change from 20 years ago, when left-handed versions of a club would not become available until the second year of production -- if at all.
That's what led Walter Tripovich to start a national mailing house in Vermont that caters exclusively to left-handed players.
``I got frustrated traveling and not finding any left-handed equipment,'' Tripovich said.
Dick Sponge has a similar operation in Florida that he started two years ago.
``Although there is more equipment available today than ever before, from a left-handed standpoint, it's still not the equivalent of what right-handers get,'' Sponge said.
Left-handed equipment accounts for about 10 percent of sales at Edwin Watts, one of the largest golf retail stores in the country. Computer-assisted design technology has helped speed the production of left-handed equipment, although there is still a waiting period from when right-handed equipment hits the market.
``It used to frustrate us, and I know it frustrated left-handed golfers,'' said John Watts, director of sales at company headquarters in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. ``It doesn't seem to be that long any more. Manufacturers have responded.''
One problem that remains is the selection of left-handed clubs -- again, a result of the small market share.
``From a manufacturing standpoint, it's hard to blame them when you look at the small percent of sales,'' Watts said. ``When you take into consideration how few 48-degree wedges are sold, then flip that to a left-handed club, the percentage really shrinks.''
Tripovich and Sponge, the left-handed club salesmen, don't expect to see an increase in left-handed golfers, although they say improved availability will keep newcomers to the game from switching to the right side.
The outcome at Augusta National was no less satisfying.
Weir became the first lefty to win a green jacket, beating Phil Mickelson as the first to win a major, and joined Bob Charles (1963 British Open) as the only left-handers to win a major championship.
``A win like Mike Weir had at the Masters dramatically raises awareness of left-handed golfers throughout the world,'' Sponge said. ``It proves a lefty cannot only compete, but win on the highest level.''
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