Charles L. Owens, a trailblazing African-American golfer and the first person to use the yip-reducing long “belly” putter in competition, died September 7, 2017, in his hometown of Winter Haven, Florida. He was 85.
“We are extremely proud of our father’s life-long dedication to the sport of golf,” Owens’ family said after his death. “His contributions to the sport helped open it to everyone regardless of age, race or disability.”
Born in 1932, Owens grew up in the Jim Crow South, the son of Fred Owens, a groundskeeper at the Winter Haven Golf Course. He took up golf as a child by hitting bottle caps in the street with broken pine branches. That’s when he develops his unique cross-handed grip – an attempt to imitate golfers he saw on the course — that he would use the rest of his life.
During paratrooper training at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1956, Owens shattered his left knee when his parachute failed to deploy properly. The resulting injury left him with a fused knee and a distinctive limp. It was the first of several leg injuries that would cause his career to ebb and flow over the years. After working as an assistant golf pro at the South Shore Golf Club on Staten Island, N.Y., Owens joined the United Golf Association in 1967. He earned his PGA Tour card in 1969 along with a sponsorship by Wilson Sporting Goods.
In 1971, he won the Kemper Asheville Open before being sidelined by another leg injury. In 1977, he became the head pro at Tampa’s Rogers Park Golf Course and oversaw a major overhaul of the publicly owned course. Built in 1952, it was for decades the only place in Tampa where African American golfers could play. The course was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.
Owens returned to the pro tour in 1986 and won the Seniors Tour twice that year. It was during one of those matches that he broke out his 52-inch-tall Slim Jim — his own version of the “belly” putter invented decades before but never used in competition. His version reached to his sternum, letting him putt despite a stiff back.
In 1987, he was inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame and received the Golf Writers Association’s Ben Hogan Award, given to a golfer who succeeds despite a physical handicap.
More recently, he was inducted into the African American Golfers Hall of Fame in 2007; published his autobiography, “I Hate to Lose,” in 2008; and was featured in “Uneven Fairways,” a 2009 Golf Channel documentary about the contributions made by African American golfers.
Owens was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease within the past year, after which his health quickly deteriorated.
His funeral was on Saturday, September 16, in Winter Haven.