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Left-handed compliment: Why southpaws thrive at Augusta

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From the beginning of the Masters in 1934 until 2002, every winner had one thing in common. They played right-handed. In the 12 Masters since, southpaws have won six times, including two wins by this year’s defending champion, Bubba Watson. 

Given how few left-handed golfers have played in the year’s first major, this 50 percent success rate touches the limits of probability. It could be that the improvements in equipment offered to these formerly “left out” golfers have lifted them to a point of equality, but that doesn’t explain why lefties have done so comparatively poorly in the other majors? Bob Charles (1963 British Open) and Phil Mickelson (2005 PGA, 2013 British Open) are the only southpaws who have won a major other than the Masters.

In 2003 professional golf was turned on its proverbial ear by the introduction of two new hard-core balls – Titleist’s Pro V1 and Pro V1x. Together they were responsible for a cataclysmic gain in distance, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since rubber-core balls made “gutties” obsolete about 100 years ago and, in the opinion of many observers of the day, ruined the game.

In 2002 Mickelson averaged 288 yards off the tee. That jumped to 306 in 2003. Similarly, Ernie Els went from 281 yards to 303, and Vijay Singh from 285 to 302. In 2002, just 18 players averaged 290 yards or longer. One year later, 64 did. The leader in driving distance in 2002 averaged 306.8 yards. In 2003 the number was a record 321.4.

With this gain in distance came a corresponding decrease in accuracy. Longer tee shots had wider dispersion patterns, of course. But these new balls also spun less, so they were more difficult to curve. That effectively halved the size of the fairway for Tour pros. Because they couldn't count on working the ball from the edge of the fairway back to the center, they had to aim there.

In theory, these balls were just as hard to draw as they were to fade, the difference being a clubface that is open (fade) or closed (draw) relative to the path of the swing. In practice, however, a draw is harder to hit because it demands more patience with the lower body, while a fade can be achieved by clearing one’s hips as fast as possible.

Since 2003, when solid-core balls began to take over the pro tours, it has been much harder to hit a draw than a fade. This peculiarity plays right into the game of left-handed golfers when they get to Augusta National, where key tee shots at Nos. 2, 5, 9, 10 and 13 scream for a right-to-left shot, which is much easier accomplished by a left-handed golfer.

Phil Mickelson first played in the Masters in 1991 and would play 11 times before winning in 2004. That was the first of his three wins there in a seven-year span.

Outside of the Masters, Bubba Watson has played in 22 majors and has just two top-10 finishes, but he has two wins in just eight trips to Augusta.

Mike Weir had played three times in the year’s first major, with his best finish a tie for 24th place. But in 2003 he put the new version of the solid-core ball in play and became the first left-hander to win the Masters. In fact, up until that year he had played in 15 majors and had finished as high as 10th only once; but in 2003, besides his win at Augusta, he finished third at the U.S. Open and seventh at the PGA Championship.

Steve Flesch, another left-hander, has played in 33 major championships and his lone top-five finish came in the 2008 Masters.

Contrast this Magnolia Lane success with that of Bob Charles, who in 1963 became the first lefty to win a major when he defeated Phil Rogers in a playoff at the Open Championship. Charles would twice finish third in the U.S. Open and had a runner-up finish in the PGA Championship, but in more than a dozen trips to Augusta National he never finished better than 15th despite being one of the best putters of all time. Charles, despite being one of the best players of his era, struggled at Augusta, mostly for his lack of great length, but he played when the equipment allowed all players to work the ball in both directions.

Once again as the Masters draws near, a left-hander, Watson, is the defending champion. For those who think the above argument has gone too far, well, perhaps you are right. Perhaps it’s more important that these players who stand on the “wrong side of the ball” are finally as well equipped as their right-handed rivals. But tell me this: When was the last time you saw a right-handed player hit a right-to-left tee shot at No. 13 that covered the distance and found the angle to the pin that Bubba’s did last year on Sunday?