Obituaries

Charles Owens, golfer whose novel putter brought late success, dies at 85

Charles Owens, inventor of the long putter, with one of the clubs that he designed and used on tour, at Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa, Fla., Nov. 8, 2012.
Craig Litten/The New York Times
Charles Owens, inventor of the long putter, with one of the clubs that he designed and used on tour, at Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa, Fla., Nov. 8, 2012.

NEW YORK — If Charles Owens was going to jump-start a late-blooming golf career, he had to fix his putting. He was 51 and playing on the Senior PGA Tour. He had bad legs and a painful back. And he had the yips — involuntary hand and arm movements that caused him to yank his putts one way or the other.

“I would freeze up on a 2-footer,” he told Golf Digest.

Weary of the many putters that had failed him, Mr. Owens drew up plans for an extra-long one and gave them to a machinist friend.

Advertisement

On Christmas Day 1983, at a golf course near his home in Tampa, Mr. Owens tested the machinist’s handiwork, a 52-inch putter. He held it with his left hand against his chest; his right hand clasped it about halfway down the shaft. Within 15 minutes, he knew his new putter, christened Slim Jim, would change his game.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

With the putter in his bag, he won two tournaments in 1986 and more money than he had ever had — a satisfying reward for an African-American golfer who had grown up poor in segregated Florida, developed a passion for a game that was reserved mostly for whites and carved his first clubs out of tree limbs.

“I found the key to the lock,” Mr. Owens told People magazine in 1986. “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.”

Mr. Owens, who died at 85 on Sept. 7 in Winter Haven from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, would live to see other golfers, including Adam Scott and Rocco Mediate, use long putters, and for golf’s rule-making bodies to later bar golfers from anchoring them against their bodies while putting.

Mr. Owens was not as well known as the few African-American golfers who had won on the PGA Tour, among them Lee Elder, Charlie Sifford, and Calvin Peete. He had victories on the low-profile circuit of mostly black tournaments organized by the United Golf Association, but found little success during his short time on the PGA Tour.

Advertisement

It was the Senior PGA Tour, however — now called the PGA Tour Champions — that brought him a second chance at glory, as it has for many other professional golfers 50 or older.

It allowed him to compete against the likes of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez, and Bruce Crampton.

They, of course, did not have Mr. Owens’ physical limitations. His stiff left knee, damaged during a botched jump as a stateside Army paratrooper in the early 1950s, had been fused and caused him to limp badly. His right knee was not much better, having been operated on several times. His lower back was chronically arthritic.

Eye inflammations caused occasional blindness.

But in 1985, Mr. Owens’s revived game was showing positive results. He finished in the top 10 in eight of the 16 Senior PGA tournaments he entered and won $78,158, ranking him 18th on the tour.

Advertisement

The next season was his career breakthrough. Victories at the Treasure Coast Classic and the Del E. Webb Senior PGA Tour helped carry him to earnings of $207,813 (about $463,000 in today’s money).

“I’ve got a new life now,” he told The New York Times in July 1986. “But for a while, I thought it might never happen. Two years ago, my wife, Judy, and I had seven credit cards, each with a $2,000 limit. We lived on those cards.”

At a tournament that year, Billy Casper, one of the tour’s legends, smiled as he saw whose name had replaced his on the leader board, the Washington Post reported.

“Why, it’s Charlie Owens!” Casper said excitedly. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

Charles Lee Owens was born in Winter Haven. His father, Fred Sr., was the greenskeeper at a municipal golf course; his mother, the former Donnie Wright, was a homemaker.

Charles, one of nine children, grew fascinated by golf, even though the course where his father worked would allow blacks only to caddie, not play. He carved his own crude clubs out of the branches of Australian pine trees and whacked bottle caps instead of dimpled balls.

As he got older, he would sneak onto the course to play with real clubs. And as his skills became evident, he told Sports Illustrated in 1986, some club members let him borrow their clubs to play the course on caddie days.

His self-taught game had one obvious quirk: He gripped clubs crosshanded. But he became too proficient to consider changing.

As a young man Mr. Owens believed he could be one of golf’s greatest players if he had the chance to play against the best. But he also recognized that golf at the time was inhospitable to blacks.

“Just playing golf takes a whole lot of heart and suffering,” he told Sports Illustrated. “When you threw in the segregation, I felt this was too much for me.”

Instead, he entered the historically black Florida A&M College and played wide receiver for its football team. At 6-foot-3 and about 200 pounds, he had the physique for the sport.

In his junior year, he was drafted by the Army and became a paratrooper.

While on maneuvers once, with the 82nd Airborne Division, he made a night jump, but the pilot let the platoon out in the wrong area. He landed in a tree and fractured his femur.

The injury was originally misdiagnosed as pulled muscles — and for more than a decade he would live almost entirely without golf.

He moved to New York City, where he sold cars and sporting goods.

While recuperating from knee fusion surgery, he read a golf magazine and began to wonder if he could play again, albeit on a stiff left leg nearly 2 inches shorter than his right one.

Practicing first on a golf course in Brooklyn, he found his skills quickly returning. He began playing — and then winning — on the predominantly black United Golf Association tour and qualified for the PGA Tour in 1970. But finding little tour success — he won only $16,515 while playing only occasionally — he took a job as head pro at Rogers Park, a golf course in Tampa.

In a few years he became eligible for the Senior PGA Tour and began resuscitating his career.

“Charlie was amazing,” Jim Colbert, a senior tour player, told The Times in 1998. “I marveled at him.

“He didn’t hit a lot of what you’d call pretty golf shots,’’ Colbert said. “He did it with things you couldn’t see — heart and guts.”