By Julian Linden
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - The Masters is the only major golf tournament that seems to offer a rare edge to left-handed players as the game's minority group has triumphed there more than the sport's other three majors combined.
The jury is out on whether the majestic Augusta National layout presents an advantage to lefties, but the recent spate of winners has triggered debate on whether they have an edge among the pine trees and azaleas of the world's most famous golf course.
Five of the past 10 Masters winners, including 2012 champion Bubba Watson, have been left-handers. It is a statistic that no other major comes close to matching.
The British Open, which dates back to 1860 and is the oldest of golf's four majors, has produced just one left-handed winner, New Zealand's Bob Charles, in 1963.
There has also only been one left-handed winner of the PGA Championship, American Phil Mickelson in 2005. No left-handed player has triumphed at the U.S. Open, which dates back to 1895.
Yet the Masters, the youngest of the majors, has produced three different left-handed winners in the past decade.
Canada's Mike Weir was the first in 2003. Mickelson has won three times, in 2004, 2006 and 2010. Then Watson joined the elite club last year.
Mickelson offered an irreverent explanation of the phenomenon when asked about it before this week's tournament.
"I think we are certainly cooler," he said.
But the man known affectionately as Lefty offered a more plausible explanation when pressed on the matter. Unlike most major championship courses, Augusta National has an unusually high number of holes that are shaped from right to left.
The theory follows that because it is generally easier to slice the ball than hook it, left-handers have a natural edge with their tee shots on dogleg left holes.
Mickelson agrees and said there were other advantages, including some of the key pin positions on the lightning fast greens at Augusta.
"There are certain holes when we play Augusta National that actually do favor one side of the ball standing on it over the other based on shot dispersion.
"A hole like No. 12, based on shot dispersion for me, where as I stand up there as a left‑handed player, if I pull a shot and aim at the middle of the green, it's going to long right or short left which is exactly the way that green sits.
"It's opposite of a right‑handed shot dispersion, which is why it's such a difficult hole in the past. If you aim at in the middle of the green and you pull it, it goes long left for a right‑handed player, in trouble, or short right in the water."
If ever there was a single shot that added weight to the theory that left-handers really do have an advantage at Augusta, it was provided in dazzling fashion by Watson last year.
The American appeared to be in all sorts of trouble when he drove his tee shot into the trees on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff with South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen.
Standing at a virtual right-angle to the pin, which was 162 yards away, Watson conjured up one of the greatest shots ever seen on a golf course.
Using a wedge, he punched the ball through a narrow opening between the pines then bent it on a seemingly impossible trajectory down the fairway and on to the centre of the green.
"I think (in that) situation, lefties would have the best chance," he told a news conference when asked to recall his miracle shot.
"I think a righty, it would be hard because you have to hit such a higher club, I think four‑iron, five‑iron, to hit it that low, because you're cutting the ball, slicing the ball.
"But I'm just obviously going to say, I'm the only one that can do it. I'm the only one that had a chance to do it."
While Watson is a natural left-hander who has never been coached and relies on instinct, Mickelson is a natural right-hander who only plays golf left-handed, which also goes against golf's traditional thinking.
Arnold Palmer, a four-time Masters champion, was a natural left-hander who taught himself to play right-handed, while Weir, who writes with his right hand, actually considered switching sides when he was a teenager because he thought it would enhance his chances of making it as a professional.
He famously wrote a letter to Jack Nicklaus asking him whether to change to a southpaw but was told to do what came naturally even though Nicklaus himself had adjusted his own game to suit Augusta.
Although he was right-handed, Nicklaus realized he needed to master the art of shaping the ball from right to left to succeed at Augusta. The result was that he won a record six Masters titles.
"I knew that you had predominately, not predominately, but you had to play some right to left shots," he said on the 50th anniversary of his first Masters win in 1963.
"But I still didn't have the nerve to let them go because I didn't have the confidence in my own game to be able to do that because I was pretty confident playing left to right. It wasn't until '63 that I got that."
The rarity of left-handed champions in golf is something of an anomaly in professional sports as left-handers have been succeeding in similar eye-hand co-ordination sports for the past century.
Tennis has a long and distinguished honor roll of left-handers, including Rafa Nadal and Hall of Famers Martina Navratilova, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Monica Seles.
Major League Baseball is packed with great left-handers, most notably Babe Ruth.
It is the same in international cricket where four of the five highest individual scores in test cricket have been made by left-handers, including Brian Lara's all-time record of 400 not out.
The main reason for the disparity between golf and other sports is the equipment. The rackets and bats used in tennis, baseball and cricket are the same for right-handers and left-handers, but not so in golf.
Many young players started out as right-handers because they were the only clubs they could find but that is less of a case now.
Of the 93 players in this year's Masters, just four are left-handers. The odds seem stacked against them, but if recent history is any guide, one of them could still end up with the winner's green jacket.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)