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They Don’t Ask How

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Backhand golf grip. Photo: Kohjiro Kinno
Photo: Kohjiro Kinno

His buddy called him Me-haul. I knew it translated to “Michael,” but the throaty blow of its Gaelic pronunciation confessed volumes about my playing partners: They were both proudly Irish, dedicated to keeping their native tongue alive, and it tagged them as Catholic, as Celtic football fans, as Donegal men born of Donegal men, and that all made sense up here in Bundoran, a big town by this northern county’s standards. They were waving the Union Jack just a few miles over, so it fit that my Irish playing partners emphasized their heritage with their native names. The only thing that didn’t make sense about Me-haul—not in the least—was the way he was holding his driver.

I would come to meet them all over Ireland, but it was at the Bundoran Golf Club, a Harry Vardon course and one of Ireland’s oldest links, that I first met the curiosity that is the Irish cack-handed golfer. Cack meaning “crap,” it is a left-hand-low grip with which Me-haul was not only putting, but driving, chipping and 5-ironing as well, and as I watched him slash his ball through the winds in Bundoran and trickle in birdie after par after par, whipping me by a half-dozen strokes, I became convinced that they had the label all wrong. I wasn’t watching crap; rather, I was watching ultimate and unequivocal proof of a golf cliché now reinfused with mean-ing: They don’t ask how. They ask how many.

Rare pioneers have swung backhanded on all the pro tours at some point, but as a full-swing approach, cack-hands are largely extinct today except in Ireland, where you’ll find a few such swingers at any club. Golf was first brought to Ireland’s dunes by British soldiers, but when a cack-hander swipes at his ball, it’s a reminder that this British game holds no place above the Irish ones.

In the days before Rory, most any Irish child would have been introduced to the Gaelic games of Irish football (soccer meets rugby meets wrestling) and hurling (field hockey meets baseball meets bar fight) well before they ever held a golf club. They are both ancient sports of stunning speed, finesse and careful brutality, and their playing is intertwined with Irish national identity and weighted with postcolonial political meaning. The organization that oversees the games, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), promotes the sports as a way to maintain true Irish culture. (The GAA still bans the playing of soccer and rugby in its stadiums.) So it is with historical irony that the cack-handers of Ireland launch their balls down the fairway of this once-British game, because they didn’t learn that grip at the driving range. They learned it on the pitches of the GAA.

Ask any Irish cack-hander why he would subject himself to such an agonizing-looking follow-through and he will tell you of his former life as a hurler. In hurling, players swing what look like flattened, fat-ended sticks (hurleys) at a hard ball (a sliotar, pronounced “shlitter”), striking the ball out of the air like Jeter at full trot, only with reverse-handed grips. The left hand on top allows for the wristy whacks that hurling requires, making it possible to curl the sliotar with varying spins.

When they have aged out of hurling and turn to golf, hurlers must decide whether they will give in to convention or swing as they have since childhood. There are abundant arguments for the former, but on a recent visit to Enniscrone on Ireland’s west coast, I found plenty for the latter as well.

It didn’t take much effort for the manager to find a couple of cack-handers to join me; a few phone calls and Richie Cloonan and Jimmy Laffey, two white-haired statesmen for Enniscrone who had long endured the stigma and stares of a switched-up swing, were waiting for me at the first tee. Jimmy told me that he announces his cack-handedness straight off when playing with new golfers; he wants to get the awkwardness out of the way and get on with his golf. They both recalled the golfer who crossed the country from Dublin for a lesson at Enniscrone, ashamed to go to a local pro with his hurling grip. He found acceptance on Ireland’s coast—the Enniscrone pro told him to not change a thing—and when he learned of Richie’s golf triumphs, he must have returned to Dublin stuffed with inspiration.

Richie proceeded to par the first three holes with his wristy lashes before I got to inquiring about his handicap; he’s played off as low as 4, and at age 79 he is a bandit of a 14. He has won two All-Ireland golf titles, nine provincial championships, as well as two Captain’s and three President’s prizes at Enniscrone, easily making him one of the most decorated amateurs in the county. 

Richie is dedicated to his left-hand lead—“It would be entirely unnatural for me to do anything else,” he explains—but he confesses that it comes with its own quirks. It’s a scoopy sort of contact that risks blading the occasional screamer, which Richie avoids by moving his ball back in his stance. The lifting left hand means he never takes a divot, which makes bunkers a tricky task, but Richie overcomes a mediocre sand game with his lethal backhanded chipping. (So many of us have gone to left-hand-low putting strokes; why not in the rest of our short game?) He’ll chip from an inch off the putting surface and leaves himself kick-ins as a matter of routine.

I watched Richie navigate the troubles of Enniscrone with acumen and breezy confidence, and I wondered: Might the reverse grip be my solution as well? My misses had always been borne of a too-strong right hand, so what if I tucked it away at the top of my grip, rendering it powerless to cast my clubface into hooks or wipey fades? Was this a lesson I was watching? Was I a cack-hander in denial?

I reached for my driver and slid my left hand to the bottom of the grip. A few easy passes and it didn’t feel so impossible. I teed up my ball, and as I swung through with full hurling abandon, the meek ting the Titleist made off the bottom of my clubface was inaudible over the sound of my shrieking; I was sure I’d just shattered my wrists like a frozen candy bar. I was relieved to find no bones sticking out of my forearms, and I accepted that as a cack-hander, I am pure cack.