Play-off with Bob Charles at Ramstein

My first experience of Bob Charles, the New Zealand left-hander, was in 1962 at the United States Air Force base at Ramstein in West Germany (in the days when the country was still partitioned).

It must have been his first trip over here because I had never seen him before but from just watching him practice I could see that he was a world class player – certainly the best left-hander I had ever seen.

Quite out of the blue, the Americans at Ramstein had decided to hold this tournament and had offered a first prize of £1,000 – not bad money for those days. I liked the course and was in among the leaders after three rounds.

I played even better in the final round and it soon became clear from what people told me that if I could catch Charles, the tournament was mine. He was playing in the match in front of me, so it was fairtly easy to keep tabs on his score.

I tried as hard as I could but on the 18th tee I was still two strokes behind so that all he had to do was get a par 4 for an easy win. However this was a tricky hole and I knew that it was only too easy to make a slip.

The approach was the difficult part. With a good drive, it was only about a 5 iron but there was a very long plateau green with a steep slope from bottom to top. The pin was over to the right on the top and almost behind a deep bunker. There was no way of stopping the ball if you pitched on the top plateau.

I hit a good low drive and watched Charles carefully as I walked down the fairway. Sure enough he hooked his approach shot into the bunker (playing left-handed, remember). As I waited to make my approach I watched him miss his putt for a five and knew straight away that I was in with a chance.

I thought that if I took a 3 iron instead of a 5 and deliberaterly hit it very low, I could get it to hit the middle of the slope and skip up on to the top plateau. All I needed was the chance of a putt for a birdie.

There was a big crowd round the green and I felt good. I swung back slowly and hit a beautiful shot, stopping the follow through to keep the ball down. It went like a bullet for this ridge, hit it had on, shot up the slope and left me with a 5-yard putt straight across the green with a big borrow.

I lit a cigarette. Dai Rees and a lot of Americans were behind the green. He could always spot when I was in a fighting mood. He told me afterwards that he said to them: “You want to have a bet quickly that Max will hole this.” As I walked on to the green, bets were apparently being taken all over the place.

I took my time over the putt. After a good look from all sides I went up to the ball and hit it hard. It went up and round and there was a roar from the crowd as it disappeared into the hole.

Dai then said to the Americans: “You want another bet now that Max will win the play-off.”

After a cup of coffee and a hamburger in the clubhouse, Charles and I went out for the sudden-death holes.

We both hit terrible drives on the first. He cut his and I hooked mine so we were both in the rough on the left and neither of us had a chance of getting on in two.

It was his shot first and he flopped it out into a bunker short of the green. I had a big swing at mine and did exactly the same thing and finished right by the side of him in the bunker.

Again it was his play first and he shot it right over the green and behind a grassy bank. It finished in what must have been a very nasty lie. My shot was a beauty and finished about three feet away for an almost certain four.

Charles couldn’t reach the green with his next shot and I could see that he would have a job to hole his chip but I sent my German caddie over to hold the flag.

“What are you doing there?” Charles said to him.

“He’s my caddie,” I said. “What do you think he’s doing?”

“Well I don’t want him there,” he replied.

I told my chap to walk away and Charles sent his own caddie to the flag. He chipped the ball dead and walked over to me with his hand outstretched.

“Well played,” he said.

I thought “Hello, what game is this?” I shook him by the hand but I wouldn’t pick my ball up.

“Just a minute,” I said. “I want to knock this in.” I motioned to my caddie to get the flag out and knocked the ball in the hole.

I can see now that there would not have been a problem but I wasn’t taking any chances. Some Americans came up to me afterwards and said they were glad to see me knock it in.

Bob is a quiet character and I soon got to know him a lot better. This sort of friction would never have happened again.

The following year he became Open Champion at Lytham St. Annes, playing immaculate golf and winning a play-off against Phil Rodgers of the USA. My elder son and I walked round for a few holes of this match.

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