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 1�" 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."