Over the weekend, Sir Bob Charles, the first left-handed golfer to ever win a major professional championship, the 1963 Open Championship, became the first person inducted into the New Zealand Golf Hall of Fame. The new hall of fame was inaugurated in honor of the 100th anniversary of New Zealand Golf.
We here at Whiffling Straits are intrigued by Sir Bob – and not just because he won the first major championship contended in my lifetime. It's also because he's not really a "left-hander." He's a natural righty who plays golf, as he prefers to call it, "backhanded," standing on the right side of the ball and hitting to his right. Recently, we had the honor of speaking to Sir Bob in his native New Zealand – about his backhanded approach to golf and his big win in July 1963.
(Image: Condon/Getty Images, via pgatour.com)
Whiffling Straits: How did you come to be a right-handed person who plays golf left-handed?
Bob Charles: Well, I’m just doing something that comes naturally. 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 belowthe 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. And swing obviously … with an axe I swing it over my left shoulder, a rake … you know, that’s just natural.
WS: I had read in Sports Illustrated that your parents were both golfers and lefties, and that’s how you came across your first set of left-handed clubs, is that correct?
BC: Well, yes, that’s correct. Actually my mother started out as a right-handed golfer and she switched to becoming a left-handed golfer. My father is the same as me. He’s right-handed with one hand, but with two hands he puts the left hand below the right.
WS: Was it because of them that you started playing left-handed?
BC: Why did I start playing golf standing on the right side of the ball? It felt the most natural way to me. I play all ball games. I’m fascinated with all ball games. I’ve got my own tennis court here on the farm, I’ve got my own pool table in the house, I have a ping pong table, so … my father was a very good sportsman, and had a good eye, instinct for ball games. 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.
WS: Do you think there’s an advantage for a right-handed person to turn things around and play left-handed golf?
BC: I think a lot depends on whether you’re left-eyed or right-eyed. You see, I don’t consider myself a left-handed golfer. I’m a back-hander. I prefer to use backhand, 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. Now when I’m lining up a putt, I’m looking at the hole and the ball with my strong right eye. So, I’ve got a feeling … well, it’s not a feeling. I’ve got a theory I suppose is the best way of describing it. If you’re left-eyed you should be a right-handed putter, if you’re right-eyed you should be a left-handed putter. I think you get a better perception, better depth perception. If I’m looking to my right, to my strong side, visually I get a better picture looking right than looking left.
WS: What do you remember most about that (British Open) victory?
BC:There’s a lot of things. Let’s put it in context, we’re going back how many years? Well, 47 years, aren’t we? Of course, the field: the best players of the day were there. Nicklaus was there, Palmer was there, Player was there, Peter Thompson was there, Kei Nagle. They were the leading players of the day. I had won at Houston just the month before, so I arrived there full of confidence, having won my first tour event in the United States. So in effect, those five players I mentioned were probably the only ones I had to beat.
Nowadays of course things are quite different. 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 players to beat. So, as a fact, [I arrived] full of confidence, I had a great week. Putted particularly well. And of course the 36-hole final [playoff] with Phil Rogers was a little bit of an endurance contest, as you can imagine, playing 72 holes in two days. And I think I was the fitter of the two. Then, Phil Rogers would never consider himself to be one of the fittest people in the world. And my putting continued through the final and I think I won by, what was it, seven shots.
WS: Actually, it was eight! And Sports Illustrated calls Phil Rogers “plump.” And you "lean," so it must have been a bit of a contrast there. How did winning that change your life? BC: Well … it opened a lot of doors for me. And of course I had signed up with Mark McCormack [founder of International Management Group (IMG)] and IMG the year before, in 1962, so I was with the best in the business. And of course, winning a major, it’s meaningful even to this day. Much more meaningful than winning a half-dozen Houston Opens!
WS: You worked in a bank before turning professional. What was your path to becoming a pro golfer?BC: In 1954 I won the New Zealand Open as an 18-year-old amateur. That same year, I started subscribing to Golf World, the weekly publication. And I read about the U.S. Tour and the leading players of the day. So in 1958, a good close friend, golfing friend, here in Christchurch, offered me a trip of a lifetime, which was to join he and his wife on a trip around the world. And I immediately wrote a letter to Clifford Roberts at Augusta National, to see if I could get an invitation to the Masters. Clifford Roberts wrote back and kindly invited me. So that was the first major I ever played in, was the Masters. This was 1958, I’d already played in the Phoenix Open, I’d played in the St. Petersburg Open, so I’d played in two professional tournaments. And mind you, I’m still an amateur, right? Played in the Masters, then I went on to Great Britain, played in the British Amateur, played in the British Open … so in 1958 I had this trip around the world, and played in three of the majors.
I played against some of the best players in the world. And I played on some of the best golf courses in the world. The Open that year was at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s which is where I won [the British Open] five years later. So I had a taste of traveling the world as a touring golfer. I was only a touring amateur, but I had an insight into what the life of a touring professional was. And two years later I came back to New Zealand. Later that year … I played in the inaugural Eisenhower World Team Championship at St. Andrews, which New Zeland was leading with a round to go. But it was won by Australia; they beat the US in a playoff.
In 1959 I went to South Africa with a New Zealand team. In 1960 I played in the second Eisenhower World Team Championship, which was at Merion in Philadelphia, where we first saw Jack Nicklaus play. He won the individual title and the U.S. ran away with victory in that one. That was 1960. When I came back from Merion in 1960 I turned pro within a month, in October 1960.
WS: What do you think your greatest strengths are as a golfer?
BC: Well, I think my short game, particularly my putting. I was never a good bunker player, but I was good from, say, 100 yards in. Short irons, getting it up and down around the greens – with the exception of bunker play. But my putting was my obvious strength.
WS: Do you credit the dominant eye, the back-handed swing … do you think that helps more in the short game than the long game?
BC: Well, I don’t know … I hesitate answering that. The one thing you must remember is I was never a power player. For example, back in the 1968, '69, when I won the Canadian Open, I’ve got the stats for that period; and the leading driving distance was Jack Nicklaus at 275 yards. And I was 245. So I was always 30 yards behind Jack Nicklaus. I was probably 20-25 yards behind Arnold Palmer, and probably 5 or ten yards behind Gary Player. So not being a long ball hitter or a power player, I had to rely on a good short game. And of course, right from day one I had a reputation of being a good putter. And whether that was because of, as I say, my dominant right eye, I don’t know.
WS: The Sports Illustrated article about your British Open win talks a lot about your demeanor. They use words like “solemn” to describe you on the course. Is that another strength?
BC: Well, I can only concentrate on one thing at a time. So I have pretty good focus on what I’m doing. I can be putting on a green and a train might go by or a plane fly overhead, I wouldn’t hear them. I’m concentrating so much on the, on what I’m endeavoring to do, I have a great ability to shut out everything else around me. So that is … I’m pretty placid, I don’t have extreme highs, I don’t have any lows at all. I’ve always been a pretty optimistic, I never have any negative thoughts, I’m always positive, and I have a fairly, a peaceful, placid … I never get excited about anything.
WS: In 2007 you became the oldest golfer to make a cut on the European tour, and have made a reputation playing well as a senior. [For instance, in an exhibition associated with the Hall of Fame induction, Sir Bob shot a stellar 69 – five shots below his age!] To what do you attribute your longevity?
BC: Well, again, good health. I’ve been … I’ve … well, in a way Gary Player has been somewhat of an influence in my career. He got me into jogging in 1972, but I didn’t stay in that very long. But … I don’t carry out his philosophies to the extreme. I believe in moderation. And fitness, I don’t go overboard, I try to stay as fit as I can. Food, I’m into health foods and a healthy lifestyle, I suppose. Throughout my career I was basically injury-free. I did have an elbow problem once, a back problem … in fact I had to withdraw from an Open Championship with Sandy Lyle, one at St. George’s, about eight holes from home, when I was doing well. But those things have come and gone very quickly. I haven’t had any long-standing injuries.
WS: Thank you so much for your time today.
BC: A pleasure. Anytime.
In addition to his 1963 Open Championship victory, Charles, won six times on the PGA Tour, four times on the European Tour, eight times on the PGA Tour of Australasia, 23 times on the U.S. Senior Tour (now known as the Champions Tour), and 26 other times around the world. He is widely known as one of the best putters of all time. He was named Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1999 and inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2008. Today he lives on a farm in New Zealand with Verity, his wife of 48 years.