Charlie Owens has the best parking space at Rogers Park Golf Course. When he hobbles into the clubhouse on his stiff left leg, he is greeted with waves, pats on the back and handshakes. His picture hangs prominently on a wall with other members of the National Black Golf Hall of Fame.
Owens, who turns 79 Sunday, doesn't play much anymore. He is retired as head pro at Rogers Park in East Tampa, but he still drops by about four times a week.
Golf was always his refuge from the world, a world of racism and misfortune. But on the golf course, he was good enough to play and win on the PGA and Senior tours, as well as several satellite tours.
"Life had been a struggle before that,'' he said. "Playing golf was a walk in the park for me. A piece of chocolate cake. I still love golf. I don't like when the sun goes down and I can't wait for the sun to rise, because I get to come back out to the golf course.''
He has enough stories to fill a book, which is exactly what he did. In December, his autobiography, I Hate to Lose, was published. He is part of Uneven Fairways, which chronicles the struggles of African-American golfers in the 1960s and 70s, on the Golf Channel this month.
For Owens, his love of the game started with a tree limb and a bottle cap.
Playing in the street
Owens grew up in segregated Winter Haven, the son of a groundskeeper at Winter Haven Golf Club. He was not allowed to use the course, so he had to be creative in order to play.
"I learned to play with an Australian pine limb and a soda pop top,'' he said. "I was 6. I didn't have a golf club or golf balls. You go up the tree and you cut a limb off. We had a road when you enter the golf course that curves around to the clubhouse. I'd play on that road. I had to learn how to hit it in different directions, fade it, slice it, put a draw on it. That's how I learned to play golf.''
He watched members and tried to imitate their swings. He thought he saw them using a cross-handed grip (left hand under the right), so he began swinging that way. He never changed.
"I looked at the grip the wrong way,'' Owens said. "They say it's wrong, but I won a lot of tournaments that way.''
When he was 11, he started caddying. One day per week, caddies were allowed to play until noon. A member let Owens to borrow his clubs, and by 14 he was shooting in the 60s.
After two years at Florida A&M and another two in the Army, Owens returned to Winter Haven. He thought he landed a job as a bus driver, but an incident on the first day changed his life.
The front of the bus
An uncle set him up with the bus driver job. He was asked to ride the route first to get a feel for how the driver operated.
He took a seat in the front row, prepared to observe.
"The driver said, 'You can't sit there, n- - - - - ,' '' Owens said, voice cracking. "When he said that, I was stunned. I said, 'The owner of the bus said I could come here and learn how to drive this route.' No other words were passed. Then a lady got on the bus that knew the driver and asked what was the matter. He said, 'I'm mad. I'm damn mad. This n- - - - - won't get to the back of the bus.' I said, 'I'm going to get off this bus, because if you say one more word to me, I'm going to drop you.' ''
Reality hit hard. He figured another stint in the Army was better than life in the civilian world. It was a fateful decision.
Hospitals, golf courses
In 1956, Owens was in paratrooper training at Fort Bragg, N.C., when his chute didn't open properly. He fell hard and shattered his left knee on a tree stump.
He was in pain for nine years before he had fusion surgery. He would never be able to bend the knee, but it didn't dissuade him from playing golf.
"I looked out the window (of the hospital) and saw the golfers playing across the street and wondered how I could play golf,'' he said. "I saw a Golf Digest magazine and I saw the money these guys were making. By then, a few black players had made it on the tour. Even with my stiff knee, in my mind I knew I could play just as good as they could.''
In another setback, however, he broke his left femur in an auto accident. Once he was healthy again, he went to a local course. He rented clubs and played a full round for the first time in 15 years. He shot 70. The next day, he shot 69.
From that day in 1966, nothing was going to stop him from making golf his life.
Top of his game
Owens became an assistant pro at South Shore Golf Course on Staten Island, N.Y., in 1967. Soon after, he attended the PGA professionals school in West Palm Beach. He stayed in West Palm to hone his game, and he later won a tournament in New Jersey.
A sporting goods store owner, Dave Rosen, saw him play and offered to sponsor him. He gave Owens a lizard skin golf bag, three pairs of shoes and a set of clubs.
"I never had my own set of clubs until I was 37,'' Owens said.
He joined the United Golfers Association for African-American players. Owens won nine of 13 tournaments he played. He played the PGA Tour qualifying tournament in 1969 and finished fifth to earn his tour card.
Wilson Sporting Goods offered a $10,000 annual sponsorship. "With that money I could go the whole year on tour,'' he said. "And I got all the equipment I wanted.''
Owens did well enough to keep his card the first year. In 1971, he won the Kemper Asheville Open and another $10,000 paycheck. But years of walking on his stiff leg took its toll. He had ankle surgeries in 1973, and four years later he was off the tour.
He resurfaced in 1981, joining the Seniors Tour and winning twice in 1986. He was the first to use the long "belly'' putter, in an effort to beat the yips. A creaky back and lost vision in his left eye forced him to retire from competition in 1991.
Owens claims 62 tournament wins in his competitive career, including satellite and UGA events. But he never felt completely comfortable in competitive golf.
"To be deprived is the worst thing in the world,'' Owens said. "You see all the years that were taken away because you were deprived. I know we weren't treated equally. I'm from Florida, I won about 20 events in Florida, but I never got an exemption. If a white guy won, they always got an exemption.''
Owens took over as head pro at Rogers Park in 1977. The course was undergoing a major overhaul, and he was brought in to oversee it.
He remembered the course from years ago, when it was in bad shape. It was also the only place in the area where African-American golfers were welcome.
"I watched it grow,'' he said. "I saw a nightmare turn into happiness. I saw this golf course 50 years ago, and the greens were lilly pads.
"To see where it is today, and to be the first one here when it was redone, makes me proud.''
No looking back
Like his peers, including Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Calvin Peete, Owens is proud to have paved the way for African-American golfers. And he continues to look forward, because looking back can be too painful.
"They never hurt me physically and they never hurt my feelings,'' Owens said. "I'm a very strong man. I've been through hell in golf, and I think about it a lot. When I do, sometimes I cry. There was so much injustice for no reason. It was just the color of my skin.''
Rodney Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or (727) 893-8810.