Billy Casper watched the new name go up on the leader board above his own. His eyes grew hard. Competing for 30 years will do that. You don't win two million bucks with your golf sticks by being a pussycat. Then Casper's whole face changed. "Why, it's Charlie Owens!" Casper beamed. "Isn't that wonderful?"
How wonderful is Owens' story? If he and Arnold Palmer were tied coming down to the last hole of a PGA Senior tournament, most people in golf wouldn't know whom to root for harder.
What's most unusual about America's latest sports hero? That he celebrated his 56th birthday last Saturday? That he limps with a stiff (fused) left leg? That he's a black in a white sport? That he wears thick dark glasses because he is, at times, almost blind from an inflammation of the iris? That he is the only successful player on earth who hits the ball crosshanded? That he uses a bizarre, 50-inch putter to take pressure off his bad back? That he has a month-old baby daughter?
Or that he's the hottest golfer in the world, finishing first and third -- worth $49,000 -- in the last two PGA Senior Tour events? After all, that's more prize money than Owens won in his first 18 years as a golf pro -- from '67 to '84.
Let's take it from the top. Owens was raised in a shack at the Winter Haven (Fla.) Golf Club, where his father worked. "Golf clubs were my toys."
Determined to achieve, the powerful 6-foot-3, 215-pound Owens was a star tight end on scholarship at Florida A&M. The Chicago Bears wanted both him and teammate Willie Galimore. The Korean War was on; Owens picked Uncle Sam, instead. Joined the Army to be a paratrooper and do his duty. The NFL could wait.
Night mission. Wrong drop zone. Too low. Owens landed on a tree stump. The injury was diagnosed for six months as a pulled muscle. Four Army operations later, he had a fused knee and potential for a lawsuit. He never pursued it.
After that, Owens' luck held. All bad. An auto accident left him in a neck-to-toe cast. So he read golf magazines. Now there was a sport in which he still had a chance to make some money. After an 18-year layoff since his boyhood rounds (some by moonlight), Owens shot 70, then 71 in his first two rounds.
Out to Gaines Park he marched to hit 700 to 1,000 balls a day. And pick them up himself. By 1967, he had turned pro. In '71, he even won an event in Asheville on the so-called second tour.
"I've only hit about 10 balls conventionally in my life," he says. "I almost broke my wrist every time . . . In my swing, I don't deal with mechanics at all. I aim right at the target, keep my head still and keep my hands going (to a full finish). I can hit it any way I want -- fade, draw, high, low. But I never do unless I have to . . .
"Anybody who can't break 100 ought to try it. What can you lose?"
It wasn't the totally weird swing, but the walking that wore him out. In seven years on tour, he developed ankle, back and knee miseries. Ask him today how his good leg feels and he says seriously: "No, no, this is my good leg." And he points at the stiff one. The other one's had three knee operations and not a bit of cartilage is left.
Somewhere along his arduous way, almost everything that could go wrong has caught up with Owens. He has five children, but by four wives. Once, in an argument, a man stabbed him in the throat; he escaped with a long scar and his life -- barely.
When the Senior Tour started up, there was Owens, ready to give it one more try. A golf cart sounded good. In '81, '82 and '83, he won a total of $17,000. Why would he win more? By now, he had the old-man yips. Who wouldn't?
"I've got 150 putters in my basement," Owens said. Finally, he had an idea. "A vision from God," he calls it. When you find a way to start making putts after your 53th birthday, that's about right.
Owens told a machinist friend that he wanted a putter that, when he bent over slightly, would come up to armpit height. How he knew that such a thing would work when no such thing existed is a fairly interesting mystery.
On Christmas Day of '83, the putter was finished. Owens headed to Rogers Park in hometown Tampa, even though the temperature was 28 degrees. "That's it," he recalls saying after the first putt. When the sun returned the next week, Owens took The Thing for an 18-hole test run. Twenty-four putts; next time, 27.
By 1985, Owens had won $78,158. Things were finally going to work out, right?
Only one small problem remained. "I was going blind," said Owens.
The disease is called iritis. You see the world through a fog. Eye drops at $50 a pop weren't curing the problem. Then, about six weeks ago, Owens tried pouring an herb tea into his eyes. As the leaderboard shows, it's working so far.
Since 1967, Owens had longed, just once, to tee it up equal with the greats of his generation -- Palmer, Casper, Gary Player, Don January, Lee Elder, Gay Brewer, Bruce Crampton, Miller Barber -- and beat the lot of 'em.
Two weeks ago in Fort Pierce, Fla., Owens won the Treasure Coast Classic, shooting 65-69-68 -- 202 to win $33,500. "I struggled and I prayed . . . I wanted to win an official tournament. I've been trying for 19 years," said Owens. " . . . God gave me my reward. I'm not going to ask for another one."
Two people in wheelchairs followed him around the Fort Pierce course. One wanted to be his caddie; Owens laid his clubs in the man's lap for luck. Two other people on crutches shook his hand as he walked off the 18th green.
Owens won't say he's handicapped -- "I can run the 100-yard dash in 30 seconds," he says -- but he's glad to be a symbol to anyone who finds it useful.
Since his first victory, Owens said, smiling, "I've kinda gotten lost in it . . . I'm still on a high . . . I think I can win again. Maybe I'm on a roll. If I am, please let me stay there."
Owens not only rolled to another $15,500 check for finishing third in the prestigious PGA Senior but got another boost there when a petition among players made it clear that an anti-cart rule for the '87 season was dead in the water. "Who would take away Charles Owens' cart?" said Player.
Owens enjoys playing the role of the star these days. He has waited long enough. Dressed all in blue after the PGA Senior, he gave TV interviews at length and signed every autograph. He knows his September song may be as short as it has been sweet, so he's not turning down any curtain calls. If his leg, his knee, his back or his eyes don't get him, then the birthdays will.
Does it bother him that the good old days may be so short after such a long delay? What a question for a man who's survived so much.
Owens just gives the quiet, sober smile that so often seems to play under his graying mustache. "My heart runs from here to here," he says, putting his thumb on one side of his chest and running it all the way across to the other side. "Some guys, it's about as big as my fingernail."