McCabe: Owens endured injustice 25 years ago
On occasion, the stroll down memory fairway elicits tinges of regret that can be mixed with the joy. In other words, for all the great shots, there are mulligans that some folks sure wish were granted.
Like the decision in 1998 to restrict Casey Martin to a single-rider golf cart for the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club. It made the U.S. Golf Association look bad, given the instability of the vehicle over such uneven terrain, and when David Fay, then the executive director of the USGA, took one out for a ride himself, he was aghast.
“It was like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” Fay said.
They were quick with their apologies, not to mention permission for Martin to drive the customary golf cart. It was the proper call to make, even if enough of the embarrassment had settled in.
But as he recalled that incident, Fay said he was reminded of another one that may not have been handled well by the USGA, one that is easily re-visited today on the occasion of the opening round of the U.S. Senior Open. It was 25 years ago, also in the first round of that tournament, when a terrible wrong was done to Charlie Owens.
Then 57, Owens should have been an inspiring story. A black American who had overcome so many social injustices to qualify at the age of 40, in 1970, to play on the PGA Tour, Owens was good enough to win a satellite-tour stop in his brief career, and twice he won on the Champions Tour.
What’s more, he had not only served his nation admirably, he had been hurt in the process – a 1952 parachute accident in the Army leaving him with two bum knees and a bad ankle. Thirteen years later, the left knee was fused and always produced pain. By the time the Champions Tour rolled around, Owens was one of many who took advantage of the right to ride in a cart, only that did not apply to the U.S. Senior Open, which is governed by the USGA, not the PGA Tour.
He had finished T-38 in the second U.S. Senior Open, in 1981, but annually thereafter skipped it because of the ban against carts. But perhaps buoyed by his 1986 season in which he had won twice and finished eighth on the money list with $207,813, Owens in 1987 figured the time was right to make a stand.
He arrived at Brooklawn Country Club in Fairfield, Conn., and told reporters: “The only reason I’m really here is to see if we can get this rule against carts abolished.”
Media outlets jumped on the story, and P.J. Boatwright, the legendary USGA executive director, conceded, “We can’t help but look bad in this.”
Yet Boatwright and Co. held firm against Owens and the carts, despite the overwhelming hypocrisies that were pointed out. In 1985, fearful of the dangers of high altitude-golf at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, the USGA had allowed carts for its U.S. Senior Open and no one felt Miller Barber tarnished the event by riding to victory. And wasn’t it a bit weird that the USGA allowed carts in qualifying tournaments for the U.S. Senior Open? Indeed, it had, and Owens jumped on that point.
“The fact that Gordon Jones qualified because he could use a cart and now we can’t use one in the Open itself shows the inconsistencies of the USGA rules,” Owens fumed in a comment that took on even greater significance when Jones opened with a 66 at Brooklawn to share the lead.
Valid points aside, the USGA didn’t budge. Owens would not get his cart, and so he tossed a pair of crutches in his bag, used them at the third, sixth and eighth holes to traverse his way around, shot 1-over 37 for nine, until finally his got his cart.
A medical cart, that is, for Owens had officially withdrawn and was granted a ride to the clubhouse.
“I understand that under championship conditions we should walk,” Owens said. “But we are has-been champions.”
Clearly, that’s an opinion that Gary Player, who shattered a scoring record in winning that U.S. Senior Open, and many others would take exception to, but Owens did succeed in one key manner: He received wide-spread positive press, and as Boatwright assessed, the USGA looked bad.
Fay, who was assistant executive director at the time, agrees that it should have been handled differently, but when he looks back at that week, what comes to mind is another aspect to the story. Owens that week not only came to Brooklawn in search of a cart, but with one of his broomstick putters in the bag.
Never denying that he was inflicted by “the yips,” Owens in 1985 had made for himself a 50-inch putter that he affectionately called “Slim Jim.” If no one noticed at first, they did when Owens sandwiched two victories around a third-place finish to begin the 1986 Champions Tour campaign.
It earned him a deal with Matzie golf and a little recognition, though the long putter wasn’t any sort of rage. But it became a bit of a hot-button topic with some USGA folks at Brooklawn, and there was talk of disqualifying Owens if he went ahead and used it.
Fay couldn’t understand the sentiment.
“I remember saying, ‘We just took the man’s cart away. Are we going to take away his putter, too?’ "
No, they didn’t, and, in fact, two years later the USGA publicly stated that long putters “are not detrimental to the game” and no one made an issue of Orville Moody using one to win the 1989 U.S. Senior Open.
Oh, but what a rage the long putter is now. Twenty-four years after Owens nearly had his broomstick swept out of his bag, he watched Keegan Bradley use one to capture the PGA Championship. Two majors later, Webb Simpson used one to win the U.S. Open. On any given week, dozens of PGA Tour members – many of them young, hardly any of them with the yips – will be trusting their livelihood to the long putter.
Should they be thankful to Owens, who is 82 and lives in Tampa? Most definitely. At the minimum, he deserves that.
It’s just a shame he didn’t get what he deserved 25 years ago, which was simply a chance to ride.