Charles Owens's left leg swings like a long, slow pendulum as he walks along the greens of the PGA's Senior Tour. His putter, which extends well above his waistline, has the same smooth sweep as it rolls 20-footers toward, and often into, the hole. Both give him a unique look on the tour. "I'm different." Owens says with a soft chuckle. "Totally different."
It may be a while before golf history knows precisely where to place Owens. He was remarkable as he struggled for nearly 20 years just to make a living as a professional. Suddenly this year he has won two events, and through October he ranked seventh on the money list with $200,963. He's the exception to all the rules.
Consider this basic tenet, which is as old as the niblick: Power in golf starts with the lower body. Owens's left leg is fused at the knee, and his right knee is missing 75% of its cartilage, yet he is one of the longest hitters on the Senior Tour. Or this: The first fundamental of the golf swing is a correct interlocking or overlapping grip. Owens plays cross-handed, with his left hand below the right. Also, pro golfers generally stride down fairways glancing about like eagles, but Owens is plagued by iritis, an inflammation that can flare up in either eye without warning, rendering him legally blind and severely impairing his depth perception. Add to this unprecedented mix another ingredient: Owens didn't start playing competitive golf until 1967, when he was 37. The year before, he had purchased his first set of clubs—a seven-piece starter set with plastic-headed woods—in a Manhattan department store. He broke them in by hitting balls in a clearing amid the tombstones of Brooklyn's Interborough Cemetery.
With all his other peculiarities, it hardly seems worth mentioning that Owens suffers from arthritis. He combats it with daily doses of 600-milligram tablets of the anti-inflammatory drug Motrin. But despite it all, let history note that Owens is the finest cross-handed golfer ever, getting the nod over Sewsunger Sewgolum of South Africa, a three-time winner of the Dutch Open, and Howard Wheeler, a talented black player of the '40s and '50s who was never allowed to play on the PGA tour. Owens displays uncanny touch and creativity around the greens, and he is strong and straight with his woods and long irons. The rhythm and power of his full swing make his cross-handedness incidental. He is also a well-proportioned 6'3" and 210 pounds. Despite his stiff left leg, he moves his lower body aggressively in his swing and produces tremendous hand action.
November 17, 1986
Unfortunately, until last year he was also one of the Senior Tour's worst putters. "It used to make my stomach hurt to watch Charlie putt," says Mike Souchak, a senior pro. But then Owens started using a putter of his own design. At 50 inches, with one shaft glued to part of another, it is nine inches longer than the average driver. Owens calls it the Yip Killer. The putter rarely leaves his sight; he carries it with him through airports and on planes for fear it might be broken.
When Owens putts, he uses his left hand to brace the end of the shaft against his sternum and places his left thumb on top of the shaft—"my cruise control button," he says. He places his right hand about halfway down the shaft. After watching Owens stroke only 24 putts during his final-round 68 at the Treasure Cove Classic in Fort Pierce, Fla., this year, Walt Zembriski said, "Charlie drained so many he just about had me ready to switch over to that putter." In July Jim Fence did use Owens's putter—and won a tournament in Grand Rapids, Mich., his first victory ever on the Senior Tour.
"I found the key to the lock," says Owens of his brainchild. "With this putter, you can't jerk the ball when you're nervous. It might look funny, but missing putts can make a brave man cry. I just had to find my own way."
He always has. Owens grew up the fifth of nine children in a Winter Haven, Fla., family. Their home was just off the 10th fairway of the Winter Haven Golf Club, a municipal course where Owens's father, Fred, worked as the greenskeeper. Like most of the golf courses in the South during the 1930s, it was not open to blacks.
When he was six, Charles began carving shafts out of the branches of Australian pine trees. For balls he used caps from pop bottles. He and a friend would pretend they were Sam Snead and Ben Hogan battling it out for the Masters. Their course was a 45-yard, dogleg par-5 along the road to the clubhouse. The hole was a drainage seam. "If you cut it just right, you could fade those bottle caps over this hedge and get home in two," says Owens, "it wasn't hard to hit a golf ball after hitting shots with those bottle caps."
Eventually, Owens started hitting a real ball with his brothers, often on moonlit nights along Winter Haven's 10th hole. Other times he would sneak out onto the course and play the entire back nine, which was blocked from the clubhouse view by a grove of orange trees. He rarely had more than one club, usually a four-iron he had reshafted himself with Australian pine. Owens smiles when he is reminded that Seve Ballesteros learned to play with only a three-iron. "You do learn some shots that way," he says. "When I first tried a sand wedge out of a trap, it seemed about as easy as putting a spoonful of sugar in a cup of coffee."
By the time Owens was 14, some club members were letting him borrow their clubs on caddie day. "I got to where I had to play bad not to break par," he says. Cross-handed, of course. When a fellow caddie with whom he was playing criticized his grip, Owens recalls saying, "How can you be three down with four holes to go and me be gripping the club wrong?"
But the realities of Jim Crow soured young Owens on golf. "I couldn't see a future in it," he says. "Just playing golf takes a whole lot of heart and suffering. When you threw in all the segregation, I felt this was too much for me."
Instead, he accepted a football scholarship to Florida A & M in Tallahassee. But his football career ended when he was drafted into the Army during his junior year. Before long, Owens signed on with the 82nd Airborne. "My big mistake," says Owens ruefully. On a night training flight over Fort Bragg, N.C., the pilot gave the jump signal too early, and Owens and his platoon landed in the kind of forested area he had always tried to avoid on the golf course. "All I remember is branches scraping me and then not being able to move." Although his left knee swelled to twice its normal size, Owens was treated only for pulled muscles until his discharge six months later. A doctor subsequently found that Owens had fractures of the femur and the patella.
Owens spent most of the next 15 years in New York City, where he spent time selling cars and sporting goods and even had a brief stint as a police cadet. He also took a big bite of the Big Apple. "I wasn't in the fast lane, I was in the express lane," he says. "I was in and out of nightclubs, with different girls, drinking, dancing, staying up until 3 a.m. or even 7 a.m. I kicked up a lot of dust, but it didn't mean anything. It all came down in the same place."
By 1966, Owens had been married three times and had fathered four children. Two Operations had failed to relieve the constant pain in his left knee. Finally, fusion was the only option. It was during his recuperation in a VA hospital that he picked up a golf magazine and noticed how much the leading money winners were making. "I still thought I might be able to play," he says.
Although he had only played some 20 times in 15 years, he bought the department store clubs and began practicing at the cemetery. He then went out and shot 70 and 71 at Marine Park in Brooklyn.
"I wasn't surprised at the scores," he says. "I was just happy I could walk. Golf has always been an automatic thing to me. I believe if I had continued after the age of 18 and had the opportunity to play, I would have been one of the greatest golfers in the world."
Owens adjusted to his fused leg, now 1¾" shorter than the right, by putting lifts in his left shoe and bending his clubs to a more upright angle. Within a year he was winning tournaments on the predominantly black United Golf Association tour. In 1969 he missed qualifying for the PGA tour. The following year he made it.
As a tour "rabbit," Owens had to compete on Mondays to qualify for the week's event. When he missed, he would often travel to the UGA event. He sometimes played seven competitive rounds in a week. The stress of so much walking led to three additional operations on his right knee.
Owens won the Kemper-Asheville Open in 1971 on the satellite tour, along with some mini-tour events in Florida, but he found himself gradually losing the financial battle. The burden affected his nerves, and his putting deteriorated. "I was jumping like a fish out of water," says Owens. "The pressure just kept mounting up, up, up until it exploded. Then the lava started down the mountain and it was all over."
Owens quit the main tour in 1977 to become head pro at Rogers Park in Tampa, 40 miles from his boyhood home. But in 1980, when cutbacks prompted city officials to offer him a lower-paying job at another course, he resigned. "At that point," says Owens, "my life was like a dishrag after you wring all the water out of it."
Fortunately, Owens had turned 50 and was eligible for the nascent Senior Tour. He also became devoutly religious. "Something had been missing in my life," he says. "The only conclusion I could come to was that I had kept God out of my life." In 1981 he married Judy Martin, who had worked at Rogers Park, and later adopted her son, Deshea. Early this year, Judy made Owens a father again, giving birth to a daughter, Charlene. His wife echoes what friends and fellow players say about Owens. "Charles is a good, kind man," she says. "The older he gets, the better."
Certainly that has been his pattern since joining the Senior Tour. As a non-exempt player, who once again had to qualify for tournaments on Mondays, Owens won less than $33,000 in prize money from 1981 to '84. And once again he was nearly broke. But in 1985, he qualified for 17 tournaments, finished in the Top 10 on nine occasions and won $78,158 to finish 18th on the money list. For the first time in his career, he was exempt. With a shot at the Senior Tour bonanza every week, Owens's worst finish this year has been a tie for 25th.
"The life I'm living today is as clear as a crystal ball," says Owens. "I'm bursting with joy. You know, I prayed for a win, and God gave me two. And more wins are going to come." He pauses to consider how far he has come. "I'm not really 'surprised, because I've always been different. But I guess how all this happened, it is kind of fascinating."