On the eve of the Senior Tournament Players Championship in Cleveland, Charlie Owens is taking stock of his 56-year-old body. And the unavoidable conclusion is that not too many chop shops would be interested in it. “I got two bad legs from jumping out an airplane,” says the former paratrooper. “I got a bad back. And I hurt a lot in various places.” Everyone knows Owens can’t get around a golf course without wheels, and on top of that his eyes are bad. “But then,” he says with a wink, “I could probably play golf blind.” Uh, oh. “I take that back,” says Charlie, shooting an imploring look toward the heavens.
No sense in tempting fate. Owens already has enough handicaps for about a dozen golfers. Yet he can afford to laugh at his infirmities. This year he has earned $154,000 on the Senior’s Tour, putting him well ahead of golden oldie Arnold Palmer, 56, ($72,385), and just behind tour leader Gary Player, 50, who has pocketed $197,721. The money is great, but lately Charlie has been reaping other rewards just as great. After years of sinking putts in obscurity, he has become something of a hero on the Senior’s circuit. You’ve heard of Arnie’s Army? Meet the small but growing Charlie Company. Wherever Owens goes he is trailed by people in wheelchairs and on crutches—not to mention those fans who simply love a long shot success story.
But on this day the geezer’s geezer is alone save for his caddie and his 10-year-old son, Deshea. Practicing for the upcoming tournament, Charlie has his golf cart headed toward the 16th hole at the Canterbury Golf Club. His left leg—the one with the fused knee that won’t bend—sticks straight out of the cart, more like a stilt than a flesh-and-blood limb. His right leg—that’s the good one—throbs with arthritis. His back is acting up, but his iritis, which has caused temporary blindness, is under control for the moment. When his caddie says how much he is looking forward to retirement in three years, Charlie shoots him a mordant smile. “Why you in a hurry to reach 65?” he asks. “Your arthritis is just gonna be three years worse. Things just don’t work as good when you get older.”
The 6’3″ Owens hoists his 215 pounds out of the cart and hobbles to the tee on 16, a par-5 585-yard monster. He grasps his club cross-handed—his right hand where the left ought to be and vice versa. Conventional wisdom holds that using this grip means ruin, madness and dislocated wrists. Yet Charlie has been using it since he was a kid. “I never had a golf lesson,” explains Charlie, lining up his shot. “My dad was a greenskeeper in Winter Haven, Florida, and I taught myself the game by hitting a bottle cap with a tree branch.” The moment Charlie’s ball leaves the tee, Deshea goes racing down the fairway. A reedy kid with a quick smile, he serves happily as his father’s legman. “Hyperactive,” says Charlie. “That boy don’t know he’s tired unless I tell him.”
Deshea finds the ball in the rough, nestled behind the root of an oak tree. It’s a maddening lie, the sort that calls for a chain saw rather than a five-iron, but Charlie stays cool. He chips out and is back on the fairway in two. “A guy has to have a good attitude to play golf,” he says. “You can’t let bad shots get you angered.”
Anger is not in Charlie’s repertoire, though it easily could be, given the shots life has taken at him. As a kid growing up in the late ’40s, Charlie had to sneak onto golf courses. “Segregation,” he says, “was the law. Golf was out for blacks unless you were a caddie.” Yet as a teenager he was a true prodigy, regularly doing damage to par. “If I had the opportunity at 18,” he says mildly, “I might have been one of the greatest golfers in the world.”
College offered the sort of future that golf couldn’t, so Charlie stowed his clubs and accepted a football scholarship at Florida A & M, where he was a standout tight end. The Cleveland Browns offered a tryout, and Charlie believed he’d be drafted. He was, but not by anyone in the NFL. “The Korean War was on,” he says. “They put me in the 82nd Airborne.” During a nighttime training jump in Louisiana, he landed in a tree. His left knee was shattered, as were his dreams of a football career.
By the mid-’60s Charlie was living in Brooklyn and earning $11,000 a year as a sporting goods salesman. Then, killing time in a veterans’ hospital after one of eight operations on his legs, he happened across a copy of Golf Digest. “I was looking at the official earnings list and I said, ‘Ooohh, maybe I’ll give it a shot.’ ” He bought himself a cheap set of clubs and started to practice—at first in Forest Park Cemetery in Brooklyn. It was an appropriate place to resurrect a golf game that had been dead and buried for 15 years.
Owens turned pro in 1967, but in seven years on the regular PGA tour he earned a piddling $15,462. “I had all kinds of physical problems,” says Charlie, who gulps motrin painkillers as if they were Flintstones vitamins. “Everything from my toe to my neck. I’d take a mosquito off my back, next thing I’d know an elephant would appear.” Finally, in addition to his physical woes, he was forced to confront the psychological elephant that so many anguished golfers never forget. Sufferers call it the Yips. “The Yips come with age,” explains Charlie. “When you’re putting your hands go this way, that way, all over. I had it so bad I was about to give up golf.”
Charlie’s answer to the Yips was to design a new putter, which eliminates the need to bend over. “The shape is like one of those UFOs,” he says. Actually, Charlie’s putter looks more like an outer-space sledgehammer. Beyond mere human dimensions, it stands just over four-feet tall and weighs three-and-a-half pounds, with a head like a flying saucer. Putting it to good use in 1983, Charlie earned $7,742 in his first year on the Senior’s Tour. “This year,” he says proudly, “I’m shining.” He plans to market his putter nationally later this year.
Surveying the verdant fairway at Canterbury, Owens concentrates on the task at hand. “It’s the man who has the strongest mind who hits the ball best,” says Charlie, who then lofts a perfect shot to the pin. “Want a ride?” he asks his son. The tireless Deshea shakes his head. He prefers to run ahead of the cart. What costs the father great pain and effort comes easily to the son. “I spend a lot of time with him,” Charlie says softly. “I’ve really grown to love him.”
As husband and father, Charlie has spent more than his share of time in the rough. He has had five children by four wives. He married Judy, Deshea’s mother, six years ago, and adopted the boy not long after. The couple also has a 6-month-old daughter, Charlene. Along with arthritis and the Yips, Charlie has noticed yet another sign of advancing age. “When I was younger, family was just a nuisance,” he says. “But now I want them with me all the time. Today, I love the aggravation of kids.” Although he fancies himself a stern father and strict disciplinarian, Charlie discreetly looks away when Deshea, playing pretend, swings his favorite driver like a baseball bat.
Lying three, Charlie’s ball is resting comfortably about 20 feet from the cup. Owens studies the green as Deshea brings him his otherworldly putter. With one hand draped over the top of the club and the other around the middle of the shaft, he looks almost as if he is impaled on the club and is twisting it painfully out of his chest. And it works. Obediently the putt drops for a birdie.
Deshea runs ahead to the 17th hole. By Monday Charlie, who will finish tied for sixth in the tournament, will be $10,500 richer. “Golf is a hell of game,” says Charlie, elated. Moving along, he tees up again. Suddenly he turns serious. “People tell me, ‘You’re making a lot of money now,’ ” he says. “But I did a lot of suffering. So whatever I’m getting, it’s just back pay.” When will he quit? “When I get all the money the game owes me—$3 million,” he says with a grin.
“I’ll retire and play golf,” says Charlie Owens.