Can a 47-year-old underachieving mid-handicapper find long-sought golfing glory by turning things around and learning to play left-handed? The world is about to find out.

Chapter 4: Major Breakthrough

“It is better to hit the ball from the wrong side and hit it right
 than to hit it from the right side and hit it wrong.”
– Bob Charles

An eight-stroke victory – in a major professional golf championship. The British Open (or Open Championship, if you prefer), no less: the oldest major championship in the world. Very Tiger Woods-like, right? Or how about Young Tom Morris-ish, in honor of Old Tom’s precocious son winning the title by a whopping 12 strokes in 1870. (Just 19 years old at the time, it was already his third straight Open title.)
            Granted, Bob Charles didn’t beat the field by eight, just his single opponent in a 36-hole playoff. But still … you might think that’s what people would remember about Charles’s 1963 British Open triumph at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s. Or why it’s so historic.
            But no, Bob’s triumph that day still resonates for a different reason, something he doesn’t really have any control over. It’s remembered because it was the first time a left-handed golfer ever won a “major” golf tournament – professional or amateur. If you’ve been paying attention, you know by now that Mr. Charles is not really left-handed. Which is why I so badly wanted to speak with him.
For a man of his stature and accomplishment, the man now known as Sir Bob Charles was surprisingly easy to reach. And surprisingly willing to spend some time on the phone with an unknown and unpublished aspiring writer. Perhaps it should not be surprising, however, seeing as Sir Bob was always known as one of the true gentlemen of the game. A man as famous for how he carried himself as for how he played.

The son of a schoolmaster in the mountainous Wairarapa district of New Zealand, Charles came by his “backward” ways quite naturally. Both his father, Ivor, and his mother, Phyllis,  were left-handed golfers. And so it was only natural that young Bob started swinging lefty.
“I’m just doing something that comes naturally,” Sir Bob told me. “It’s instinctive for me to grip with one hand, to pick things up, grip anything with my right hand. But when it comes to putting two hands on anything, I automatically put the left hand below the right hand.
“For example, , if I pick up a rifle, I put the left hand below the right hand. If I pick up a pool cue, I put the left hand below the right hand. A spade, an axe, everything I do with two hands, I put the left below the right.”
A left-handed golf swing, he explained, is just like hitting a right-hander hitting a two-handed backhand in tennis – something I discovered for myself later on.
“I’m a right-handed tennis player with one hand,” he said, “but to get a little extra with the backhand, I put the left below the right and use a double-handed backhand.”
When it came to golf, his mother, curiously, started out as a right-hander, but switched to lefty (though he didn’t say why). His father, on the other hand, an avid and skilled all-around sportsman, shared his same tendency toward backhandedness.
“My father was a very good sportsman, and had a good eye, [a good] instinct for ball games. And he was just playing what was natural for him. He played cricket, he was a good cricketer: he bowled right-handed, batted left. If you use baseball as an example, he and I both would have been right-handed pitchers and left-handed batters.”
He said he can’t remember ever not having a golf club in his hand, having started on the game at age 3 or 4. Using several hand-me-down cut-down clubs, he honed his skills by hitting a tennis ball all over the family’s yard. Golf wasn’t the only sport that captured his fancy, however; rugby and cricket offered stiff competition for his attention. So it took a while to realize that golf was where his truest talents lay. He played no tournament golf at all until age 1416, when he and his mother narrowly lost a mixed foursome match play event on the final hole in the championship match. And it was only then that his father deemed Bob worthy of having his own set of clubs.
Finally able to swing away with his very own left-handed sticks, it took young Bob just four years to make his mark in the golfing world at-large. In 1954, while still an amateur, he became the youngest winner of the New Zealand Open, at age 18. Among those he bested were noted Australian professionals Peter Thomson and Bruce Crampton.
After finishing high school, Bob opted against continuing his formal education, as he “wasn’t keen on studying.” Instead he took a banking job offered him by a friend of his father’s. And for the next six years remained the most accomplished golfer-banker New Zealand had ever known.
During this time, in 1957, he took advantage of an opportunity of a lifetime by accepting an invitation from New Zealand cricketing legend Ian Cromb – a wealthy friend of the family – to join him on a whirlwind world tour.
“I’m 21 and he was 52 at the time, and we’re playing a round of golf together at the Christchurch Golf Club,” Bob recalls. “And on the 14th hole he says to me, ‘I’m going away for six months, around the United States and then on to Europe. How would you like to join me?’
“And I said, ‘That’s fantastic!’”
Well, who wouldn’t jump at such a chance!?
Cromb’s wife was invited, too – which was fortunate considering the couple were essentially newlyweds. If it was at all awkward for Mrs. Cromb to have a young golfing phenom tagging along on what might have been considered an extended honeymoon, she didn’t let on – at least not publicly!
In preparation for the journey, Bob wrote a letter to Clifford Roberts, one of the proprietors of a little golf club in Georgia known as Augusta National. It may seem quite audacious to write the business partner of the legendary Bobby Jones requesting an invitation to a tournament as prestigious as The Masters. Today, with qualifying standards very strictly laid out, such a thing would have been almost incomprehensible. But things were simpler in those days.
“He gave me a nice reply to the affirmative,” Bob said.
“You see, their philosophy is The Masters is an international event. They like to have participants from all over the world, and they’d never had a New Zealander play in The Masters before. So I think that was probably a big factor in my getting the invitation.”
(Hmm … I wonder if Billy Payne, the current Masters chairman, would be interested in extending a similar courtesy to a 48-year-old right-handed lefty amateur. Skip Kendall has never played in the Masters, so it would be the first time the tournament has hosted a golfer from the Nicolet High School district in north suburban Milwaukee. Quite a novelty that, don’t you think!?)
The Masters wasn’t the only tournament on Charles’s itinerary. He also planned to try to qualify for the Phoenix Open in Arizona and the St. Petersburg Open in Florida. These were professional tournaments on what was then known as the “winter tour.”
Leaving New Zealand the first week of January 1958, the trio spent a week in Hawaii before continuing on to the U.S. mainland. While there, of course, he played a few rounds of golf – with borrowed clubs.
“I didn’t take any golf clubs on the trip with me,” he explains. “I was planning to get a set of golf clubs through the Dunlop representative [in San Francisco], Howard Kinsey, who was a great tennis player. He played in the days of Kramer.” (That would be Jack, not Cosmo.)
Ian Cromb, you see, had connections. One was Mr. Howard, who not only set Bob up with equipment, he also hosted them all at the “Crosby Clambake,” a.k.a. the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, “where I watched Billy Casper beat Bob Rosberg,” Bob recalls.
“From there we went back to San Francisco and bought a 6-year-old Hudson Wasp for $250. And Howard organized some equipment for me. In those days Dunlop didn’t make any golf clubs. So I got a bag from them and balls. And we talked to the Wilson people and wound up with a set of Wilson golf clubs: Top-Notch [brand]. So now I had a set of clubs and I could play!”
Picture if you will a small paper cut-out of a Hudson Wasp. Now visualize it bouncing across a map of the southwestern United States, tracing a dotted red line from San Francisco to Los Angeles (including Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm) to Palm Springs (where they watched the Thunderbird Invitational, before it became the Bob Hope Classic) and then to Phoenix. In the qualifying round for the Phoenix Open, Bob survived a sudden death playoff for a single spot in the tournament. Though he failed to make the cut, just qualifying for his first U.S. professional tournament was a worthy accomplishment.
From Phoenix the Wasp and its occupants made their way to Houston, where they (the occupants, not the car) took in the action at the Houston Open. Bob didn’t play, but the opportunity to see the course first-hand would come in handy five years later. Then it was on to Florida and the St. Petersburg Open, where Bob played well enough to earn low amateur honors.
“Of course, no money, but I got a nice gold watch as the leading amateur,” he recalls.
After that they drove down to Miami, where they gave the Wasp a rest and flew down to the Caribbean for a few days to take in some cricket. Then it was back to Miami to drive up to Augusta for The Masters, “the biggest of them all,” as Bob described it to me.
“I didn’t make the cut, I have no idea what the score was, I probably shot high 70s,” Bob recalled. “But I did play a practice round with Gene Sarazen.”
(Sarazen, of course, is a Masters legend. One of only five men to win all four modern major championships in his career, he put The Masters (originally named the Augusta National Invitational) on the map in 1935 by holing a 235-yard 4-wood shot on the par-5 15th hole of the final round for a “double-eagle” 2 . “The shot heard ’round the world,” as it would come to be known, vaulted him from three strokes back of leader Craig Wood into a tie. The next day he beat Wood in a 36-hole playoff to win the tournament in its second year. He is also credited with inventing the modern sand wedge.)
And that was it for the United States – for now. After unloading the Wasp in New York for $50, Bob and the Crombs boarded a plane for London. While in Great Britain, Bob was able to play in a number of prestigious amateur events, including the British Amateur Championship at St. Andrews. At the birthplace of modern golf, he made it through to the quarter-finals before losing a match.
From St. Andrews they traveled on to Royal Lytham and St. Annes in Lancashire, where Bob would attempt to qualify for the British Open – or, as it’s known more formally in Europe, the Open Championship.
“I don’t know what I scored, or whether I even qualified, it’s a bit hazy all that stuff,” he told me. “But that was the year Peter Thomson beat Dave Thomas in a 36-hole playoff.
“After the Open, in July, my golf was virtually over and that was the end of the trip.”
As we were wrapping up our conversation, I was able to go online and dig up the scores he couldn’t quite recall from the 1958 Masters and British Open.
“Bob,” I said to him (I think I called him “Mr. Charles” during our first interview and “Bob” during the second), “you shot 71, 79 [in the British Open] and finished in a tie for 60th.” (Only the top 40, out of 96 entrants, made the cut that year.)
This result seemed to surprise him. “You said ’71-79’?” he asked. “That 71 must have been ….”
He didn’t seem quite able to finish his thought, so I jumped in and said, “It must have been a thrill!”
“Yes, it must have been,” he said with a smile I could sense from the other side of the globe.
“And in The Masters you shot 77-80,” I continued. “And you beat Gene Sarazen! He had 81-78.”
“So you’re looking that up on the internet, are you?” he said with a touch of wonder. “Oh my goodness. I don’t know if you could look up who Joe Carr beat in the final of the British Amateur that year?”
Of course I could! “In the 1958 British Amateur, Joe Carr defeated Alan Thirlwell.”
“Oh, Alan beat me in the quarter-final!”
It was really quite a little thrill to lead this golfing legend and fine gentleman down Memory Lane like that.
For a 22-year-old New Zealand banker, the trip was the thrill of a lifetime – and a great peak into the world of the touring golf professional.
“It opened my eyes to three things,” Bob said. “One is traveling, you’ve got to enjoy the traveling. And you’ve got to love the game, obviously. It also gave me the opportunity of playing in two majors – three if you want to call the British Amateur a major. Playing in major tournaments gave me the opportunity of playing with the best players in the world, and gave me the opportunity to play on the best golf courses in the world.”
Essentially, it was the trip that made Bob decide he wanted to play professional golf for a living. He remained an amateur for two more years, competing in a number of prestigious amateur events. Later in 1958, he represented New Zealand in the inaugural Eisenhower World Team Championship at St. Andrews, where his Kiwi team narrowly lost to Australia and the U.S. (Australia won in a playoff) after leading going into the final round. The following year, he represented New Zealand at a team event in South Africa. And in 1960, he saw a young Jack Nicklaus take the individual title while leading the U.S. team to a decisive victory in the 1960 Eisenhower event at Merion in Philadelphia.
A month later, in October, he turned professional, deciding that he’d “better concentrate on either banking or golf.” Hmmm … tough choice, that one!
On the New Zealand Tour, he won the 1960 Queens Park Open and the 1961 New Zealand PGA before venturing to Europe, where he won twice and was the fourth-leading money winner in 1962. His winnings? A whopping  $10,080 – which probably felt like quite a lot at the time. Still, knowing that greener pastures lay across the pond, he went back to America and joined the PGA Tour in 1963.
But a couple other fairly significant things happened first. For one, before coming to America he flew to South Africa to marry Verity Aldridge (a friend of Gary Player’s wife), who he had been wooing since he visited there in 1960. And second – in an event that lives large in left-handed golfing history – he played in the U.S. Left-Handers Open Championship at DeSoto Lakes Country Club in Florida, where he demolished the field by a whopping 17 strokes. And if you think, “Well, that was just against left-handers – how strong could the field have been?” – consider that in doing so he broke a long-standing course record.
Still, outside the world of left-handers, Bob’s entrance onto the American Tour went largely unnoticed. Except by one particularly influential individual.
Mark McCormack is best known as the first “super agent” in sports. His first – and for some time only – client was Arnold Palmer, who he helped turn into the biggest name in not just golf, but all of sports. Eventually, his company became known as IMG, International Management Group, which today is widely considered the most powerful agency in sports. By 1962, McCormack’s stable had expanded to include not just Palmer, but also Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, widely known in later years as “the Big Three.” So it was no small thing that McCormack also saw something great in the young Bob Charles.
As McCormack writes in the Foreword to Charles’s 1965 book, Left-handed Golf:
Except for golfers in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, no one really knew very much about this impassive young man. He had thoroughly destroyed the DeSoto Lakes Country Club …. This spectacular victory … should have catapulted him into prominence in the United States. For some reason, no great significance was attached to his victory and the usual statement made by the average golf fan was: “He must be pretty good for a left-hander.” …
I must confess that before meeting Bob and seeing him play I might have had somewhat the same attitude. However, his feat at DeSoto Lakes was absolutely incredible to me as I had competed on that golf course in past years and knew it to be tremendously difficult. On that basis, before seeing him play, I suspected that he had to be more than a “pretty fair left-hander” and that his accomplishment was much more than a few “hot” rounds.
After meeting Bob in South Africa and watching him play two tournaments, I immediately accepted the request to become his attorney and business manager throughout the world.

McCormack noticed something special in Bob Charles. And it didn’t take long before other Americans noticed, as well.
“Beginning with the California tournaments in 1963, many persons were curious about this left-hander from New Zealand,” McCormack wrote, “and I could see that most of them did not take me seriously when I stated unequivocally that he would be the first left-hander to win an American PGA tournament. People laughed when I said he had an excellent chance of winning one of the four ‘major’ tournaments as well. Some so-called experts even intimated that I was probably a little bit out of my mind.”
By May, McCormmrack had been proven right on the first prediction, when Bob captured the Houston Open. Two months later, his more bodacious claim came true when Bob returned to Royal Lytham & St. Annes for the 1963 Open Championship.

The oldest golf tournament in the world, the British Open/Open Championship was once the only golf tournament in the world. The only one of any consequence, at least. Though the first iteration, staged in 1860 at Scotland’s Prestwick Golf Club (not at St. Andrews as is often thought), featured only eight golfers, it gradually gained in scope and scale, attracting the finest golfers in the world. By the time Young Tom claimed his third title in 1870, the field had swelled to a whopping 17 golfers. (The field would not top 50 golfers until 1885; or reach 100 until 1901.) That third victory changed the course of history, as Young Tom, by previous agreement among the tournament founders, claimed the Championship Belt for keeps. Thanks in part to some squabbling among the sponsoring clubs about who should pay for a replacement, no tournament was staged in 1871.
The tournament resumed in 1872, after a new agreement was forged. The new pact not only allowed for clubs besides Prestwick to host, it also introduced the now-famous silver “Claret Jug” to replace the Championship belt. This time, however, no provision was made for anyone to keep it permanently. Fittingly, the first presentation of the Claret Jug trophy went to none other than Young Tom Morris. (But he didn’t actually received it because the Jug, though commissioned, had not yet been crafted at the time of the tournament.)
By the mid-20th Century, however, the Open Championship had faded in stature as the United States became the hub around which the golfing world revolved. With a few notable exceptions, the game’s best players – that is to say, America’s best players – could not be bothered to make the trip across the pond. It just wasn’t worth it. The trip was too expensive and the purse too small. Not to mention that transatlantic air travel was not yet commonplace. A British Open appearance in those days meant a significant investment in both time and money – with little promise of a significant payday.
One of those notable exceptions was Ben Hogan’s epic triumph at Carnoustie. Encouraged – even pressured – by friends and supporters to play in the game’s oldest championship at least once in his life, Hogan traveled to Scotland in 1953 and won the event in his only appearance, impressing the Scots with his precision play and stoic demeanor in the process. The “Wee Ice Mon” they dubbed him, with a mix of awe and affection (Hogan was only 5’ 7” tall). Along with his Masters and U.S. Open titles, it was his third major win of the season in three attempts.
But Hogan’s three-legged Slam, which earned him a New York City ticker-tape parade when he returned from overseas, failed to spark a resurgence of Open popularity and importance. It was not until Arnold Palmer made his first appearance in 1960 that the original major began to regain some of its historic luster. The King had already won The Masters and the U.S. Open that year, and first gave birth to the notion of a “modern Grand Slam” by suggesting that adding wins in the British Open and the PGA Championship that year would rival Bobby Jones’s feat of winning both Opens and both Amateurs in the same year. Unfortunately for his legions of fans, Palmer came up just short, finishing second at St. Andrews, one stroke behind winner Kel Nagle. But when he won the event the next two years, the Open Championship was firmly re-entrenched as a “major” championship.
Having won at Houston just a month previously, Charles arrived full of confidence, ready to take on the world’s best – even though he’s the first to admit that the competition wasn’t as stout then as it is today.
“Let’s put it in context,” he said to me. “We’re going back how many years? Well, 47 years, aren’t we? The best players of the day were there. Nicklaus was there, Palmer was there,  [Gary] Player was there, Peter ThompsonThomson was there, Kel Nagle … they were the leading players of the day. In effect, those five players were probably the only ones I had to beat,
In fact, despite Charles’s modesty, that 1963 field was considered quite strong. Past champions included Palmer, of course, gunning for his third straight triumph; Australian Thomson was trying for his fifth overall; and Gary Player and Kel Nagle, each with an eye on a second Open Championship title. Perhaps even more notable – in hindsight – 23-year-old Jack Nicklaus wanted badly to win his first Open title, having been somewhat unimpressive (finishing in a tie for 32nd) in his debut the year before.
To put things in further historical perspective, by the time they finished their playing careers, they combined to win 40 major professional championships – not even counting senior events. Nicklaus, of course, famously won 18 (the mark Tiger Woods most wants to reach), Player nine, Palmer seven, and Thomson five (all in The Open), with Nagle bringing up the rear with his lone Open title. So there was plenty of firepower, even if it was mostly concentrated near the top.
“Nowadays, of course, things are quite different,” he continued. “What I’m saying is, the quality was there but there was no great depth to the field. Whereas today, instead of just five players, you’ve got 50 [top] players to beat. You with me? Good.”
But it was unheralded Phil Rogers, a short and stocky former U.S. Marine, who made a statement early, shooting 67-68 (five under par on the par-70 layout) to take a healthy halfway lead. A third round 73, however, brought him back to the pack while Charles fired an impressive 66 to take the top spot after three. Meanwhile, playing solid if not spectacular golf, Nicklaus shot 71-68-70 to stay two shots back of Charles. Heading into the final round, it was pretty much a four-man race, with Charles at three under par (-3), Thomson at -2, and Rodgers and Nicklaus at -1.
            (A couple of quick notes on history: For one, it’s odd to imagine that in 1963, the British Open was played Wednesday through Friday, with 36 holes scheduled on the final day. So it was all over – except in the case of a playoff – by the weekend. Unimaginable in today’s TV-driven media coverage. Also, it was not yet commonplace to use “relation to par” when reporting scores. The Sports Illustrated article about the tournament, for instance, includes barely a reference to the scores being over- or under-par. This practice, however, would soon become predominant as televised golf grew in leaps and bounds during the 1960s.)
            Late in the fourth round, Nicklaus had the tournament well within his grasp. Playing two groups ahead of Charles and Rodgers, he held a two-stroke lead standing on the 71st tee. A costly bogey on 17, however, shaved that lead to one. And it was here that Royal Lytham’s notoriously quiet fans might well have influenced the outcome. Knowing the situation was extremely tight, Nicklaus waited on the 18th tee, waiting to hear a cheer if Charles and/or Rodgers birdied the 16th hole. When he heard nothing, he assumed he was still in the lead and needed only a par to maintain a one-stroke clubhouse lead. In fact, they had both birdied 16 to pull even. When Nicklaus bogeyed 18, it spelled the end of his chances.
Of course, there’s no way to tell how Nicklaus’s mindset may have influenced how he played 18. But it’s not a stretch to think that playing “defense” in search of a par instead of aggressively for birdie could have made the 23-year-old tentative, and influenced the outcome. In fact, it’s something he now points to as a learning experience. In a June 2012 Golf Digest article, Jack Nicklaus lists his bogey-bogey finish as one of his career “regrets.” With the benefit of hindsight, however, he says it likely helped him in the long run.
“I was probably better off not winning, again, because of the learning experience,” he said. “Those bogeys were useful for me in my career.”
But Rodgers and Charles weren’t thinking of any of that, of course. They still had golf to play, with the tournament still on the line. On the 18th, a relatively short par-4 with both the fairway and green well-guarded by bunkers, Rodgers found himself facing a 15-foot birdie putt to win the tournament – Charles had four feet remaining for par. After leaving his first putt a nervous two-feet short, Rodgers tapped in – barely. Then he slapped his tweed cap over the hole (something of a trademark move) and made a show of walking rubber-leggedly around the green in a display of literal comic relief. The hi-jinks did not faze the stoic Charles, who calmly knocked in his par save to force a playoff.
It was an exciting end to regulation play, but not at all the one golf fans had expected. Palmer, the two-time defending champ and odds-on favorite (British bookmakers listed him at 2-1 to win, an irrationally exuberant figure) was never a factor after opening with a disappointing, to put it mildly, 76. He finished in a relatively devastating tie for 26th, a whopping 17 strokes back. Player, another pre-tournament favorite, rallied from an opening 75 to finish tied for 7th, a (slightly) more respectable 10 strokes behind. And Nagle’s third-round 73 took him out of contention, though he finished with a solid 71 to place solo fourth, six strokes back at +2.
In the 36-hole playoff the next day, tall, thin, and stoic Charles made relatively short work of short, stocky, and flashy Rodgers. By lunch he had built a three-stroke lead; two holes into the afternoon he was up by five. On the 21st hole of the playoff, number 3, a long par-4 with railroad tracks down the right-hand side, Charles gave Rodgers an opening when he hooked his drive out of bounds. Rodgers pulled within one after making a few putts of his own, but on number 8 Charles broke his opponent’s spirit for good. After Rodgers sank an unlikely 50-foot birdie putt on the eighth – and predictably made a spectacle of himself in celebration – Charles sank a 30-footer of his own. Without so much as cracking a smile, he then turned on his heel and headed straight for the 910th tee, leaving his caddie to retrieve the ball and perhaps offer a wry smile to the crestfallen Rodgers.
After that, it was all but over but the non-shouting. Charles continued to make putt after putt en route to a solid 71, while Rodgers wilted to a 76 under the barrage of Charles’s red-hot flat stick.
“The 36-hole [playoff]final with Phil Rodgers was a little bit of an endurance contest, as you can imagine, playing 72 holes in two days,” Sir Bob told me. “And I think I was the fitter of the two. But then, Phil Rogers would never consider himself to be one of the fittest people in the world!
“And my putting continued through the final. I think I won by, what was it, seven shots?”
It was eight, of course – with every stroke of the difference accounted for on the putting surface. If all that counted was hitting the green in as few strokes as possible, Rodgers would have edged Charles that day by a stroke. But thanks to a nine-stroke (56 to 65) putting advantage, the lanky New Zealander won in a blowout.
Drive for show, putt for dough – you bet!

Charles would go down in history as one of the great putters of the game – as well as one of the most modest, as evidenced by this story told by his good friend Tony Jacklin, in an essay he wrote prior to inducting his friend into the World Golf Hall of Fame:
I remember being in Memphis once. I had finished my round and was back at the hotel, sitting beside the swimming pool with my wife. Bob walked by and I asked him how he had played. He said, "I putted quite well today." I thought, what in the world does that mean coming from him? So I asked, and he said, "I never missed anything under 30 feet." I was like, well, say, no more. He shot 63 that day. … His prowess with the putter really benefited him when he went to the Champions Tour. He made mincemeat of everyone.

What was the key to his success? Well, one thing Charles had going for him on the greens at Lytham & St. Annes was what is sometimes called “cross-dominance.” That is, he played left-handed while his dominant eye was his right. Having his stronger eye closer to the line of play was something Charles feels gave him a distinct advantage.
“When I’m lining up a putt, I’m looking at the hole and the ball with my strong right eye,” he explains. “So, I’ve got a theory … if you’re left-eyed you should be a right-handed putter; if you’re right-eyed you should be a left-handed putter.”
And here’s another thing I found intriguing, something I didn’t get a chance to ask him about. I’ve always been fascinated by how “wristy” putting strokes were in those days. Arnold Palmer is a prime example. Back then he would stand hunched over close to the ball, with his hands tucked in close to his body, almost seeming to brace his elbows into his mid-section. He would then strike the ball with the putter almost entirely using his wrists. Nothing at all like today’s “modern” putting strokes, in which the wrists and elbows remain locked, and the stroke is made primarily by rocking the shoulders.
But I ran across this description of Charles’s putting stroke on the official Open Championship website (, in a summary of the 1963 tournament:

Locking arms, hands and putter into one solid unit he rocked his shoulders back and forwards in a classic pendulum action that was devastating.

Could it be that part of the reason for Sir Bob’s putting brilliance was that he was ahead of his time with his stroke? Whatever the reason, Charles dominated the short grass that day in England to win his first major victory. He had officially “arrived.”
“It opened a lot of doors for me,” he told me. “And, of course, winning a major, it’s meaningful even to this day. Much more meaningful than winning a half-dozen Houston Opens!”
Yet despite was seemed like the start of something big, the 1963 Open Championship was the first and only major Charles would win. Not to say that was the end of his success, however, as Bob went on to win some 40 professional titles around the world, including six on the PGA Tour. He also had a number of subsequent close calls in majors, including second at the Open Championship in 1968 and ’69, second at the PGA Championship in 1968, and third at the U.S. Open in 1964 and 1970.
To be clear, he did all that before he turned 50. Because perhaps Charles’s most enduring legacy is the outstanding success he enjoyed on the U.S. Senior Tour (now called the “Champions Tour”), where he won a whopping 23 times from 1987 and 1996. That doesn’t even include the two Senior British Open titles he won, in 1989 and ’93.
He is also credited with being the oldest golfer to make the cut on one of the world’s professional golf tours. As a young man of 71, Bob finished 23rd in the 2007 New Zealand Open – more than half a century after he won the tournament as an 18-year-old amateur. And, though his performance was ultimately upstaged by Tom Watson’s near-miraculous runner-up finish in 2009, at age 59, Charles is also the oldest to make the cut at the Open Championship, when he finished 71st at age 60 in 1996 – once again at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
“To what do you attribute such amazing longevity?” I asked him. “Good health,” he replied. Being friends with Gary Player certainly didn’t hurt in that regard, Player being pro golf’s original fitness freak, a veritable Jack LaLanne of the links, long before Tiger Woods made working out commonplace on tour.
Charles was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2008 – the first left-handed player to receive the honor. In 1999 he received an even higher distinction, becoming known as “Sir Bob Charles” upon his appointment as “Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit” – though I could find no information regarding the number of left-handers that may have preceded him.
Today he lives with his wife Verity on the New Zealand farm they purchased in 1972, at age 36 – “envisioning an early retirement from golf,” he says. But the game was just too good to him to abandon. He’s officially retired from competition now, but not from playing. He’s thankful for continued good health and a long, successful, career – and life. In 2011, he told a New Zealand television station:
I wouldn’t change anything, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve got a great marriage, 48 years married. Two children, four grandchildren – unfortunately they live in the northern hemisphere, but I do get to see them fairly regularly. My health has been good, I’ve been fortunate in that respect. A lot of my contemporaries have had ill health, which has cut short their careers. But I’m still – perhaps not as flexible – but I’m still as fit and healthy as I was in my 20s. I guess I attribute that to good genes. My parents, they managed to get to 96 and 91. So I suppose that’s the next thing to aim for, is to try to reach 100! I never made 100 in cricket, actually. But [if] all [continues] going well with my good genes and good health, I might get to 100 [years]. I just hope I’m mentally sane enough to enjoy making a century!

And though he doesn’t mind being so well-known for having broken golf’s dexterity barrier, he’s not crazy about being known as a “left-hander.” To him the term just doesn’t seem quite right.
“You see, I don’t consider myself a left-handed golfer. I’m a backhander. I play a double-handed backhand. I stand on the right side of the ball, I hit the ball on the right side of the clubface, and I’m hitting to my right, while wearing a right-handed glove."
It couldn’t be more clear. Right?


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