Robert Charles, the somber left-handed golf professional from New Zealand, has lately found himself in a most unwelcome situation. A withdrawn sort of man with no appetite for publicity or public adulation, Charles has been thrust into the role of spiritual leader for a struggling minority group—the left-handed golfers of the world. They cheer their pilgrim's progress through the perils of a world of indifferent righthanders. They write him letters of encouragement. They bet more than they can afford on him. They even jeer at their right-handed friends when Charles has moments of success, as he has had with increasing regularity on the tournament circuit during this past winter and spring.
Among those who have grown accustomed to left-handed pitchers, tennis players and statesmen, the trials and tribulations of other left-handers pass unnoticed. But left-handers will maintain with considerable passion that, though their numbers abound on this earth, there are still fields in which they are mightily discriminated against, such as war, dentistry and golf. Nobody much wants to make such things as left-handed rifles, drills or mashies.
Of the 5 million people in the U.S. who are believed to play 10 or more rounds of golf a year, only about 8% play left-handed. The figure would be much higher were it not so difficult to find the proper tools. As short a time as 10 years ago, all left-handed golf clubs had to be ordered specially, and the equipment sometimes took as long as six months to arrive. Consequently, left-handed youngsters like Ben Hogan who wanted to take up golf had to learn the game with right-handed clubs or not at all. Now along comes Bob Charles, swinging away from the "wrong" side, winning tournaments, making club manufacturers consider a market they had hardly tapped and, in sum, changing perhaps forever the lot of the leftie.
Though Charles became the New Zealand open golf champion as long ago as 1954, when he was only 18 years old, and though he has had a couple of fairly successful seasons as a tournament pro in Great Britain, it wasn't until he joined the U.S. golf tour early this year that he began to attract both attention and adulation. Charles caught up with the touring pros in Arizona in February, and within a couple of weeks he was winning prize money. At the Masters, he finished 15th and won $1,100. The next week in Greensboro, N.C., he finished in fourth place and won $1,766.67. The week after that in Houston he shot a 268, finished first and collected a check for $10,000. It was the first time a left-hander had ever beaten all the leading professionals in a major event. By last week Charles had earned $15,312 on the 1963 tour and stood in ninth place on the list of PGA money winners.
Charles seems an unlikely fellow to arouse enthusiasm. Uncommunicative among strangers, he is, in truth, uncommunicative among friends, too. He moves mechanically around a golf course, never changing the expression on his narrow, ascetic face. When he speaks, the sound comes out but the lips hardly move. Whether he is sinking a putt for an eagle or missing a two-footer for a double bogey, his demeanor is the same—impassive. It is intentionally so. "I think you should be concentrating on your golf all the time," he says. "I don't think it serves any purpose to throw your cap in the air or do a war dance on the green when something good happens. That's a bad habit, like smoking all the time. I try to contain my emotions." No one since Buster Keaton has been more successful at it.
The way Charles hits a golf ball is just as unemotional as his disposition. A beanpole of a man, he is 6 feet 1½ inches tall, weighs a mere 158 pounds and has the waistline of a Gibson girl. He bends this sliver of a body only slightly as he addresses the ball and then swings the clubhead in a nearly perfect vertical arc. He displays no effort, but the arc of his swing is great and the speed of the clubhead deceptively swift. He gets as much distance as all but the very longest pros without any of the earth-shaking violence that characterizes their efforts.
"It's like playing golf with a funeral director," is the way British professional Eric Lester describes a round with Charles. "The chap never smiles or cracks a joke or even talks to you on the course. Well, tournament golf is a serious business, but it's not life or death as Charles makes it."
A case can be made against being critical of this solemnity. As Henry Cotton, the fine British pro of the prewar years, says, "Charles is a fellow who is living for a purpose—to be a good golfer. Of course, people in America expect him to provide good copy, to be chatty and flamboyant and create news like Gary Player. They may call Charles colorless, but after all he's only supposed to be a golfer, not an actor or a comedian. I like him as a man. He is very courteous and very polite. He strikes me as a player who knows what he wants, and that is to be the best player."
Those Americans who are familiar with some of the more colorful athletes from down under must remember that the people of New Zealand are to the Australians about what Iowans are to Texans. And Bob Charles was born in New Zealand. His father, Ivor, was a schoolmaster in the lovely, mountainous Wairarapa district, and Bob, an only child, was raised on the links of the Hinekura golf club near the family home. Both of Bob's parents were not only low-handicap golfers but lefthanders, too, and they used to push him around the course in his pram when they were playing. By the time he was 5, Bob had several cut-down left-handed clubs of his own, and he used them to whack a tennis ball around the family garden.
But the big sports in New Zealand are Rugby in winter and cricket in summer, and Bob devoted much of his teenage time to them. Although he hit both a golf ball and a cricket ball left-handed, he did just about everything else right-handed, simply out of choice. A good leg-break spin bowler (roughly the equivalent of a curve-ball pitcher) he threw right-handed, kicked right-footed, sighted with his right eye and hit his forehand in tennis with the right hand. He even writes with his right hand, a fact that should be kept from the lefthanders who venerate him.
Being a natural athlete, Bob Charles learned his classic golf stroke with no more than a few basic words of advice from his father. At 14 he played in his first tournament—a mixed foursome event in which he was paired with his mother. After they lost in the final round by only a single hole, Bob's father decided it was time for the boy to have a set of golf clubs of his own. That was the start of Bob Charles, champion golfer. Within a few months cricket, Rugby and the other sports were merely diversionary activities.
Charles completed his formal education at the age of 17. He had been attending Wairarapa College, the local high school, but, as he now puts it, "I wasn't keen on studying. When I was offered a job in the bank in Masterton by a golfing friend of my dad's, I took it." A year later, he won the New Zealand open golf championship, beating, among others, those fine Australians, Peter Thompson and Bruce Crampton.
For the next six years Charles tried to combine banking and golf, but the bank came out second best. It seemed as if every time a line formed at the teller's window, Charles had to catch a plane for Philadelphia or South Africa or somewhere. By the end of 1960 the thought came to him that "I'd better concentrate on either banking or golf." He chose golf, and turned pro.
With his life savings of $1,700, Charles began his first professional junket across the fairways of the world, spending most of the money on a round-the-world ticket. The first stop was South Africa, where a wealthy paper manufacturer and incurable golf fan named George Blum-berg arranged for Charles to become affiliated with the Dunlop Sports Co. Ltd. in Great Britain. His tournament earnings were soon adequate, if not sensational, and in 1962 Charles was the fourth-leading money winner on the British tour. His purses totaled $10,080, which seemed like a good deal of money to a young man instilled with the frugal ways of a country in which money is respected as much as the national anthem. "My father grew up in the Depression years," Charles said recently. "He had to work in the coal mines and the wheat fields to make ends meet, and he knew the importance of money. He always said that if you can't afford something, you don't deserve it."
Two very important things happened to Charles at the end of last year. In December he played in the U.S. Left-Handers Open championship, which he won by a margin of 21 strokes with a competitive course record of 270 over the DeSoto Lakes Golf Club at Sarasota, Fla. This, of course, brought him to the attention of left-handed golfers everywhere, who immediately agreed that their savior had at last arrived.
Right after that success Bob flew to South Africa and married a beautiful blonde girl named Verity Aldridge—a high school classmate of Gary Player's wife—whom he had been courting for the past two years. The reception was in the garden of Gary Player's new home near Johannesburg, with Vivienne Player as matron of honor, 4-year-old Jennifer Player as flower girl, Denis Hutchinson, one of the better South African pros, as best man, and golfer Bobby Verway, Vivienne Player's brother, as an usher. After their honeymoon, Bob and his bride joined the U.S. tour.
Verity Charles is an effective counter-agent to her husband's solemnity. When she looks at him with her big blue eyes, Bob's formality melts. "Love," she will say, "that was a beautiful shot you hit out of the sand on the 17th."
Bob takes her hand in his and replies, "I thought you said I was a poor bunker player," and his stony countenance breaks into an enormous smile.
Warmth and beauty are not the only contributions that Verity makes to her husband's career. The most serious flaw in Charles's golf at the moment is a tendency toward an occasional horrendous round, such as the 81 he turned in at the Colonial Invitation two weeks ago. The previous day he had the low individual score of 66 over the same course during the pro-am event. Verity did not hesitate to tell him that a 15-stroke slump was ridiculous for a golfer of his talents. Even Bob's best friends feel that he is inclined to stop concentrating when things are going badly. Verity seems to be just the person to jolt him out of these lapses.
Nor does Charles have so many bad days that he cannot become a man to be reckoned with on the U.S. tour, for his game and his nerves are sound. He plans to become a fixture on the American golf scene. He and Verity have taken a house in Nassau to be within commuting distance of the U.S. tournaments, and Charles intends to spend at least 30 weeks of the year at his new profession, a decision certain to please his left-handed following.
He does have his reservations about all the adulation from the left-handers ("They have this—I don't know—inferiority complex"), but the way he strikes the golf ball makes him a living illustration of their motto: "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."