Phil Mickelson signs thousands of autographs, all with his right hand. Since he plays golf left-handed, that might seem strange. Equally strange, his brother, who is left-handed, plays golf right-handed.
But what's really baffling is why so few golfers play left-handed when roughly 12 percent of the population are lefties. There are half a dozen on the PGA Tour and only two on the European Tour. There's no shortage of left-handed tennis players or baseball batters and pitchers, so why are there so few left-handed golfers?
Professor Chris McManus, from the University College London is an expert on the subject. What we are interested in is "sidedness" - the side an individual favors in any specific activity. We say someone is left-handed because they write with their left hand even though they may do other things with their right.
"Handwriting is an incredibly skilled activity," McManus said. "So we write with the hand over which we feel we have most intricate control."
Not every activity requires the same degree of control. Throwing, for example, has an important element of power.
"About a third of left-handers prefer to throw right-handed," McManus said. "And, curiously, about two percent of right-handers throw with their left hand."
Then there's footedness. Roughly 20 percent of the population is left-footed; about 30 percent is left-eyed (the eye to which you raise a telescope); and 40 percent is left-eared (the ear against which you place a telephone).
Human beings are unique in that there is a substantial majority favoring the one side, the right side. If, for example, gorillas took up golf in a big way, there would be as many left-handed, big-hitting gorillas as there would be right-handed, big-hitting gorillas.
The human species is the only one to have developed language, so gorillas are, for example, unable to shout "fore," which only partly explains why they are unwelcome at most clubs. This language facility is ordinarily found in the left hemisphere of the brain, which controls the right side of the body and explains the link between language and the preponderance of right-handedness in humans.
If a sport is symmetrical, favoring neither side, you would expect the players to reflect roughly the percentages of left and right sidedness in the general population. In professional soccer, the breakdown between right- and left-footers is, as you might expect, 80 percent to 20 percent, respectively. The soccer pitch is symmetrical and favors neither left nor right.
Some sports appear neutral, but are not. In baseball, while the diamond is symmetrical, the crucial sprint to first base favors left-handers discarding the bat to their right and disadvantages right-handers, whose momentum takes them the wrong way.
This is crucial and is part of the explanation as to why there are so many left-handed batters. Another factor is the swing of a baseball bat is essentially clumsy and doesn't require the finesse that only our preferred side can provide. Left-handers are also said to have an advantage when facing right-handed pitchers because they can more clearly view the delivery of the pitch and read the spin on the ball, which causes it to curve.
Cricket provides a good example of the second factor that determines whether there is an advantage or disadvantage in playing a sport left-handed. Is there a competitive edge to be gained from being somewhat unusual?
Because of the preponderance of right sidedness, the majority of cricket batsmen and bowlers are right-handed. Therefore, to bat or bowl left-handed provides a strategic advantage. Right-handed bowlers will be more used to bowling to right-handed batsmen and will be somewhat unsettled by having to adjust their line to bowl at left-handers. Left-handed batsmen, on the other hand, will be quite used to facing right-handed bowlers.
For broadly the same reasons, left-handed tennis players have a strategic advantage that minorities enjoy and are consequently over-represented in the professional ranks - approximately 20 percent play left-handed. And the same is true of boxing's southpaws - there are twice as many as one would expect.
Like tennis racquets, cricket bats and pool cues, ice hockey sticks can be held either way. Consequently, young ice-hockey players have the opportunity to hit the puck in both a left and right-handed fashion. Then, when they graduate on to golf, they know which way round they prefer to play.
So, in Mike Weir's Canada, where ice hockey is the national recreation, there are five times more left-handed golfers than there are in the United States. The availability of equipment and opportunities to experience playing sport both left- and right-handed are part of the third factor, how people get started in a sport. In Canada, left-handed golf equipment accounts for an incredible 15 percent of the market!
A shortage of left-handed clubs is a major consideration in determining how a beginner starts out in a game. Golf club manufacturers have undoubtedly been guilty of neglecting lefties. Happily, things are improving.
Will Mickelson's enormous popularity encourage more left-handed golfers? If so, we'll have to wait about 10 years before this new crop comes through. By that time, maybe a Democrat will occupy the White House and the world will have lurched so far the other way that lefties won't feel so … er, left out.
February 7, 2006
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