Professional golf, particularly in our little corner of the world, has been brought to its knees by the coronavirus. The cancellation of the 102nd New Zealand Open was the last major event to fall in this summer’s PGA Tour of Australasia house of cards, leaving all associated on both sides of the ditch clinging to the hope of a trans-Tasman bubble opening soon.
Fortunately, Sir Bob Charles has spent his “whole life being a positive person”. The 84-year-old is naturally upset but realistic about the temporary demise of his beloved national open and grateful the country’s domestic Pro-Am circuit bearing his name is back up and running. The famed name behind the Jennian Homes Charles Tour is also encouraged that New Zealand Golf continues to report an unforeseen surge in participation as the Kiwis who flocked to a healthy outdoor pursuit in lockdown have continued on swinging.
New Zealand Golf played the mutual appreciation game with its favourite son on Tuesday when another gift brought to fruition by the pandemic – Sir Bob Charles – The Biography – was unveiled.
Ten years in the making but spurred along in its final production stages by the lockdown, the life story of New Zealand’s finest golfer and the first lefty to win a major championship was launched with the assistance of the governing body at Royal Auckland and The Grange Golf Club.
It is a treasure, offering an overdue historical reference back to the game that has given Charles so much over the past 60 years.
The 321-page volume was penned by retired Christchurch solicitor Geoff Saunders, a golfing chum of Charles’ for more than half a century and to this day a three-handicapper himself.
Their close friendship had its gestation when Charles, then a Carterton-born, Masterton-based bank-teller, moved from provincial Wairarapa to Christchurch in 1956, two years after capturing the first of his four New Zealand Open titles at (now Royal) Wellington G. C. as an 18-year-old amateur.
The author’s admiration for Charles was sealed on Nov. 6, 1969 when Saunders skipped class at Christ College to watch Charles tee it up alongside Gary Player in an exhibition match at Christchurch G.C, or Shirley as it is often referred to. Saunders’ intimate relationship with Sir Bob and deep historical knowledge of Charles’ game lends great authenticity to a fascinating journey through what, despite the knighthood, remains one of New Zealand’s most under-rated sporting careers.
A good deal of the early historical information for the book was sourced from scrapbooks kept by Charles’ mother Phyl from 1953 to the mid-1970s and stored today in boxes that Charles “can hardly pick up”.
It is lavishly illustrated with 160 photos immortalising Charles with the game’s greats – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Player, Peter Thomson and Kel Nagle to name a few. They’re mostly “black and white” memories as Charles drolly noted on Tuesday. That understated sense of humour resurfaced when Charles’ was asked about the two different sizes of the same biography, headlined by a larger hardback copy. The latter is cleverly limited to 1963 signed copies in a nod to his playoff victory over extroverted American Phil Rodger’s at the 92nd Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St. Annes.
“Well the big difference is the price,” Charles said to laughter. “Just bigger and better, limited edition [for $250 compared to the standard edition for $59.90].”
A reporter then posed a curly question, in Charles mind a least. “Sir Bob, you are a legend of this game in the county and around the world. What does the title legend mean to you, and feel like?”
“I mean, those are the words you use, I don’t use them myself. Yeah, I’ve had a lot of success…” Charles said before tailing off to read a more definitive answer that he penned himself for the biography’s back cover: “The story of a man who remains a boy at heart, who sought no fame, but had it thrust upon him. His love of golf – together with a little talent and lots of luck, resulted in rewards and riches he never imaged.”
With that, Charles typically deferred attention, this time to his buddy Saunders.
“The result is something I’m very proud of. I’m proud of Geoff and what he’s done. It’s factual, there’s no make believe in there. Most of it is positive. That was one of the things I said to Geoff, I don’t want any negativity, no controversy in the book.
“As far as that goes, my whole life I’ve been a positive person. It’s the story of my life which was a little bit of talent and a whole lot of luck. I think you’ll read into how lucky I was to achieve what I did and to enjoy a life like I have experienced.”
It has indeed been a life well played thus far. From well before his amateur heroics at Heretaunga in the 1954 NZ Open, through the 1963 Open Championship, the story behind the four versions of his trademark Bullseye putter, to that famous comeback in 2007 to help keep the NZ Open off the rocks, Charles’ story is a read hard to put down. As promised, the book skirts any hint of controversy but does delve into a life outside the ropes that hasn’t always been as smooth as Charles’ famed putting stroke. Chapter 22 – A Wonderful Life – captures family life with Lady Verity, “my rock” as Sir Bob calls the woman he met and fell in love with in 1959 and married in 1962. It touches on Lady Verity’s battle with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia but also happier times sharing tiny hotel rooms on tour with the couple’s two children, David and Beverly, who have gone on to make Sir Bob and Lady Verity grandparents four times over.
So what next for Charles? What’s left to achieve? Sir Bob insists “not much” other than the small matter of promoting the lifelong benefits of golf for body, mind and soul.
“I’m somewhat reluctant to get out and display my, shall we say, amateurish game,” he said.
“Geoff signs me up for Wednesdays and the occasional weekend play [at Clearwater], we quite often team together, both off the same handicap and until quite recently we were hitting the ball about the same distance off the tee. But I struggle to play to my three handicap.”
Don’t be fooled. New Zealand Golf Digest has it on impeccable authority that Charles signed for a round of 70 – 14 shots under his age – at Titirangi G.C. in Auckland as recently as March.
The legend not only lives on, it continues to grow. Quickly now, on to the next tee.
Sir Bob Charles – The Biography and limited edition ‘BC 1963’ caps and headcovers can be ordered at www.bobcharlesbook.co.nz