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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.
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."