Sir Bob Charles might have won the British Open among 70 golfing titles, but he’s never forgotten the debt he owes to Christchurch Golf Club for launching his career as the world’s first great left-handed golfer.
Today Charles lives with Lady Verity, his wife of 58 years, beside the Clearwater Golf Course, but the Christchurch club’s Shirley “links’’ remains his home club.
The venerable course, located near Horseshoe Lake, features in Sir Bob Charles -The Biography – a handsome 321-page book recently completed in partnership with Charles’ Clearwater neighbour, Geoff Saunders, a retired Christchurch lawyer who was a leading amateur golfer in the 1970s.
Charles, 84, met Stuff to discuss his book, and career, at the stylish clubhouse of the Shirley course, where he is a life member and club patron.
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“Since I arrived in Christchurch in 1956, I’ve flown the banner for the Christchurch Golf Club. I’ve represented them, and likewise Canterbury. I’ve always played out of the Christchurch club,’’ he says.
An upstairs room in the clubhouse – rebuilt after the Canterbury earthquakes – is now named after one of Canterbury’s most foremost sporting personalities.
In pride of place is a replica of the Claret Jug – the trophy presented to Charles after his victory at the 1963 British Open at Lancashire’s Royal Lytham & St Annes course, where he became the first left-hander to win one of golf’s major tournaments.
“I feel quite honoured to have this room, the Charles Gallery, as a legacy, I suppose, to display some of my memorabilia,’’ he says, sitting in an armchair in the gallery. “I still retain a lot, but I think it gives a pretty good cross-section of the successes I’ve had over the years.’’
Winning the Open Championship was only a distant dream when Charles first signed on at Shirley as a 20-year-old bank teller, transferred from hometown Masterton to Christchurch with the National Bank.
By then, he was already a household name, having won the New Zealand Open as an 18-year-old amateur at Heretaunga’s Royal Wellington Golf Club in 1954.
In Christchurch, Charles settled with his schoolteacher father Ivor, and mother Phyl, in a rented house on Dyer’s Pass Road, at the foot of the Cashmere Hills, but the trio decided to join their new city’s premier golf club at Shirley.
“Working with the bank, my golf was only on weekends. It probably consumed all my Saturdays and Sundays. In Masterton, I was able to play midweek golf because the National Bank in those days closed at 3pm and I was able to cash up and be on the golf course close to four o’clock. Things changed somewhat when I came down here. Midweek golf was out of the question because we were living too far away.’’
In 1956, Charles, “on a plus-3 handicap’’, was quickly drafted into Christchurch’s Woodward Cup interclub team and the Canterbury Freyberg Rosebowl representative team.
A chance conversation at Shirley led Charles to a pivotal moment in his career, a 1958 tour of the United States and Britain with former New Zealand cricketer and accomplished golfer Ian Cromb.
The pair, and Cromb’s wife Pat, travelled around the US in a battered Hudson Wasp car, sightseeing and playing in various tournaments. The highlight for Charles was an invitation to compete at the US Masters at the famous Augusta National course in Georgia. While he missed the cut, he wrote in his book how he “felt truly privileged to watch the greater players of the day at such close quarters’’.
That trip, in many ways, crystallised Charles’ dream to become a top professional golfer, but it would be 1960 before he left the amateur ranks.
Charles was selected, from Shirley, for the New Zealand amateur representative team, touring in 1959 to South Africa, where he met his beloved Verity in Johannesburg.
After three overseas tours in New Zealand colours, it was time for Charles to quit the security of his bank job and try his luck on the pro golf circuit.
“When I turned pro, nobody in New Zealand had ever become a touring professional, I was the first. [The New Zealand Professional Golfers Association] didn’t know whether to accept me into their membership.’’
Shirley club pro Norman Fuller stepped in to provide a solution. “I served a one-year apprenticeship under Norman,’’ Charles recalls. “Ordinarily, an apprentice pro had to clean the members’ shoes, the members’ clubs and learn how to build a golf club. I never did anything like that. It was just purely an affiliation to fulfil a period of apprenticeship.’’
Charles was granted full NZPGA membership in January 1962 – the same year he married Verity.
He cut his teeth as a touring pro in South Africa and Britain, but made the golfing world sit up and take notice when he won the Houston Open in 1963 – the first left-hander to win a PGA Tour event.
Charles was profiled in Golf World magazine as “Golf’s Ice-Cold Kiwi’’ and Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Red Smith wrote in the New York Herald Tribune that “it must have been something to behold when a tall, skinny stranger who looks like [French president] Charles de Gaulle but calls himself Bob Charles went busting around with a score of 268, smashing the tournament record and making off with $10,000’’. Charles, Smith wrote, was “a non-Texan from a place called New Zealand, which is a heck of a place beyond the Pecos, and on top of that he is left-handed. It was, by all, odds, the most horrid calamity [in Texas] since the Alamo’’.
Suddenly, Charles was being spoken of as a potential rival to golf’s famous ‘Big Three’ – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player (who Charles had befriended on his first tour to South Africa, and who has written the foreword to Charles’ book).
It’s history now that Charles beat them all at the 1963 British Open, winning the title in a playoff round after he was tied following the regulation 72 holes with young American Phil Rodgers.
Charles’ most famous victory is chronicled across two chapters of his book, which highlights the New Zealander’s modest comments in his victory speech: “It’s a wonderful thrill to have won this British Open,’’ he said, while offering his condolences to Rodgers (who would never win a Major), saying: “It’s a shame he can’t be joint winner….’’. He acknowledged he had “demoralised’’ his rival with his short game. “It was my putter that won this championship.’’
Charles became an instant sporting hero in New Zealand, with Prime Minister Keith Holyoake dispatching a telegram saying: “All at home thrilled and delighted by your splendid personal achievement in which you have brought new sporting distinction to New Zealand.”
Biographer Geoff Saunders claims: “In New Zealand’s sporting lore, [Charles’ Open victory] was not perhaps quite as significant as Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquering Mt Everest in 1953, but it was certainly up there with Murray Halberg and Peter Snell [winning track gold medals] at the 1960 Rome Olympics or Snell [winning two golds] at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.’’
Charles, at 27, became a life member at the Christchurch Golf Club after his 1963 Open triumph.
For the best part of the next decade, he became one of the leading figures on the world golf circuit. He was third in the 1964 US Open, tied for second in the PGA Championship tournament in 1968, and finished third-equal at the 1970 US Open.
His successes, fame, friendships and association with Mark McCormack’s IMG management group allowed Charles to bring Arnold Palmer and Gary Player to New Zealand for four-match exhibition tours.
It was a chance for Charles to pay back his home club, with matches against both touring greats staged at Shirley – where his parents didn’t have to go far to watch. “They lived just across the road, in McCorkindale Place, within walking distance of the golf course.’’ Dad Ivor even caddied for Charles on one of the festival encounters.
The Palmer exhibition match, in October 1967, drew a crowd of 5500, “the largest ever to see a golf match in Canterbury’’, noted The Press’ sports editor, R T (Dick) Brittenden. Charles delighted his home gallery, winning with a five-under-par 68, despite Palmer scoring an eagle at the 456-yard tenth. When Palmer shot a two-over par 7 on the 505-yard fourth hole, a spectator had quipped: “Don’t worry, Arnie, Gene Sarazen [a seven-time Major winner in the 1920s and 30s] took a 13 at that hole.”
“It was a colourful spectacle, with a magnificent setting: a quality production in every aspect,’’ Brittenden wrote. “There are not many more pleasant places to be than at Shirley in the late spring.’’
Charles “played delightfully relaxed-looking golf, although all his great powers of concentration were there when he was making the shot.’’ Palmer – then the richest golfer in the world – earned “a warm ovation’’ at a pre-match clinic when he praised Charles’ fine overseas record.
In November 1969, Charles squared up at Shirley against his good friend Gary Player, who’d won five Major titles by that stage of his storied career.
To the delight of his Christchurch fans, Charles again prevailed, shooting an even-par 70 to Player’s three-over 73. Player “consistently gained great length from the tee and his chipping bore the hallmark of quality,’’ The Press noted. “But Charles hit more greens in regulation figures and took fewer putts.’’ The Press report praised the two world-class golfers for maintaining concentration despite a minor demonstration at the third hole, which required police action and a belated Guy Fawkes celebration by some youthful cracker-throwers near the thirteenth.’’
While his golfing career required Charles to live overseas, in South Africa, the Bahamas and the United States, Canterbury has “been my home since I first arrived in 1956’’.
He and Verity bought a 232-ha (575-acre) farm in Oxford in 1973, and promptly named it ‘Lytham’ after the scene of his 1963 Open win.
Generations of Kiwi sports followers and schoolchildren proudly sported short-sleeved ‘Bob Charles’ shirts, courtesy of the golfing ace’s association with Christchurch’s Lane Walker Rudkin clothing firm.
Charles was knighted for services to golf in 1999 and was appointed a member of the Order of New Zealand in 2011.
He remained a competitive force on the international Seniors golf tour until he retired in 2010 at the age of 74, telling ESPN it was “time to slow down and spend more time on my farm in New Zealand with my family’’.
Now, in his ninth decade, Charles continues to be a fine ambassador for golf, and patron of the Charles Tour for emerging young New Zealand players.
His long career is carefully chronicled in his biography, which had a 10-year gestation from concept to print.
“We were away 10 years ago when Bob retired and I realised he had been playing for 50 years and no-one had done a biography,’’ explains Saunders, who wagged school as a 15-year-old to watch Charles play Gary Player at Shirley.
The book remained a slow-burn project until this year when the Covid-19 pandemic “accelerated it’’, with the Clearwater neighbours finding more time in lockdown to sit down, reminisce and pore over scrapbooks painstakingly compiled by Charles’ mother, Phyl, over a 20-year period. Charles says the “kudos belong to Geoff’’. Saunders, a member at Shirley for over 50 years, says: “Suddenly, we had a book that came to fruition in about three months.
“Sir Bob is a Canterbury and New Zealand sporting icon; the story needed to be written.’’