The X Factor

The teasing some kids endure is cruel, and Jeff Wolff got a good dose of it as a small boy growing up in Texas. Kids would see him practicing or playing golf and they would call him crazy, or a freak.

But then, as now, Wolff is living proof that golf’s age-old axioms still ring true: It’s not how, but how many. There are no style points in golf. Whatever works. The first time he picked up a club, at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, where his tennis-playing parents were members, Wolff gripped it cross-handed. That felt natural for a left-handed 2-year-old holding a righty club. So that’s how he played. And he was pretty good.

“I don’t know how it happened,” says Wolff, who has a plus-1 handicap even though golf takes a back seat to his busy career as a senior associate at his law firm. “When I grabbed the club that’s the way I grabbed it.”

Then, as now, Wolff was an extraordinarily long hitter. Seeing a 320-yard drive result from his weird swing puts an end to the wisecracks. “When they see you hit it,” he says. “they’re like, ‘Okay, whatever.’

“I’ll never forget the dad of  one of the kids we always competed against,” Wolff says. “He always said, ‘It’ll never last. You can’t play that way.’ I was stubborn about it. I guess I was a little sensitive about it because all I heard from people all the time was, ‘What’s this guy doing?’ “

Over the last 20 years or so, a left-hand-low grip has come into vogue as an alternative putting stroke, but using it for other strokes is dismissed as folly. Wolff’s success proves that while unorthodox, it’s not impossible. He has amassed a healthy collection of trophies, including the 11-14 age-group title at the 1986 Texas Junior.

“I remember we couldn’t beat him for two years, until we were about 14,” says PGA Tour standout Justin Leonard, who grew up in Dallas. “He won just about everything. It’s obviously an unorthodox way to do things, but I think in any sport or activity you’re going to find people who excel and kind of go their own way about it. Jeff’s one of those people.”

Wolff did not receive much instruction as a kid, but not one of the teaching pros he has seen since had tried to change his grip. “I was never told to do otherwise,” he insists. “I think that was good. The pro at Colonial, Roland Harper, saw how I hit it and was like, ‘If it’s working, I’m not going to change it.’

“I saw David Leadbetter and I saw Doug Higgins. But no one ever said anything about changing.” They simply gave Wolff instruction about other things, such as alignment and stance.

Higgins, now a teaching pro in north Texas, recalls the grip. “I do remember thinking it was strange. One of my thoughts was, how good can he get this way?” he says. “It doesn’t surprise me that he’s able to shoot scratch golf. He was at that level then. I’m surprised, in a way, that he didn’t hurt himself somehow, his hands or his wrists or his elbows.”

That’s a common concern. Wolff says when friends try the cross-handed grip on the range, “they tell me it feels like they’re going to break something. I think what I may have that a lot of people don’t have is more flexibility in the arms, to get it back on line, and that’s why I’m able to do it.”

And probably always will.

“He could never go back and try to play with a regular grip,” says Dow Finsterwald Jr., Colonial’s head professional. “That would be like starting over.” And it’s way too late for that.