Playing amongst past NZ Open champions in tomorrow’s curtain-raiser for the 100th Open will be a golfing legend who amazingly first played in the event 66 years ago.
As a 17-year-old, Sir Bob Charles — who at the 1963 British Open famously became the first left-hander, and first Kiwi, to win a Major — competed at the 1953 NZ Open at Dunedin’s Balmacewen course.
That was won by Aussie Peter Thomson who ended up winning a record nine NZ Opens.
The next year, Charles burst on the scene by winning the Open at Wellington’s Heretaunga course, beating reigning Open champion Thomson and the field’s other international, Bruce Crampton.
“I think I surprised every golfer in NZ including myself,” Charles says.
“For me to beat those two international players was quite an achievement — I guess I’ve been dining out on it ever since.”
Charles, however, remained an amateur, and a Masterton bank teller, for another six years while gaining a wealth of overseas experience.
It’s a path he thinks aspiring pros should still tread — “I think they’ve got to test the waters”.
His next Open win, in 1966, was by a 13-stroke margin that’s the second highest in the tournament’s history.
That included a 62, the lowest round he ever shot, which was also a course record at Wellington’s Paraparaumu Beach.
“I was probably at the peak of my game then.”
He had two more Open wins, in 1970, at Auckland’s The Grange, and 1973, at Manawatu.
His last Open appearance was the first played at Sir Michael Hill’s new Arrowtown course, The Hills, in 2007, when the then-71-year-old became the oldest player to make the cut and play four rounds in a non-senior professional tournament.
Charles, who also enjoyed stellar success on the seniors circuit after turning 50, thinks that record will stand “because most people retire by that age”.
He recalls the Open attracting record crowds that year, spurred by interest in Hill’s new course.
“It was a terrific venue right from day one.
“It’s probably tapered off a little bit [in crowd numbers] but I think from a playing perspective, a lot of the guys who keep coming back from overseas just love the week in the environment.”
Personally, perhaps reflecting his own experience, he’d prefer to see the Open move to other places, “and maybe every second or third year go back to Arrowtown”, rather than stay there all the time.
Charles accepts the Open’s pro-am format “stimulates interest and perhaps makes it a little easier to raise the money necessary to make it an international event”.
However he’d still like to see only pros playing on the Sunday, with the amateurs playing Jack’s Point or Kelvin Heights, for example, if they want to play four rounds.
At 82, the World Golf Hall of Fame inductee says he’ll put in an appearance at the Par-3 event at Hill’s new nine-holer, The Farm, tomorrow, “if you want to call it playing”.
“I’ll give it a whack.”
He’d only play the main event “if they give me the red tees, or maybe the white ones, but certainly not the black ones”, he quips.
“I know the golf courses [The Hills and Millbrook] are in great condition — I played them both over Christmas/New Year.
“We’ll see some terrific shooting, some terrific golf.”
Asked what he’d most like to see at the 100th Open, “it would be great to have a NZ winner”, he says.
As an 82-year-old, he admits one consolation is he gets to beat his age — “if I don’t shoot better than my age, I feel like shooting myself”.