Born in Carterton, a small town in the Wairarapa district in New Zealand’s North Island, Charles lived in Masterton where he worked as a bank teller.
He first came to the forefront when he won the 1954 New Zealand Open at Heretaunga, as an 18-year-old amateur, overcoming Peter Thomson and Bruce Crampton.
After his victory, Charles decided to hone his skills as an amateur first and remained in his bank employment for a further six years. He represented New Zealand several times in international amateur tournaments during this period. Charles turned professional in 1960 and the next year won the New Zealand PGA Championship and soon after ventured overseas to the European and North American circuits.
In 1963, Charles won his first PGA Tour event in the United States, the Houston Classic, the first PGA Tour event won by a left-handed golfer. Later that year he won The Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. After four rounds (68-72-66-71) his 277 was level with American Phil Rodgers. Charles won the 36-hole playoff by eight shots.
Charles has won about 80 tournaments around the world. As well as his PGA Tour victories, his win in the 1969 World Matchplay Championship was considered one of his best. He won the Senior British Open 30 years after winning his British Open title. He remains, along with Michael Campbell, one of only two New Zealanders to win a men’s major golf championship.
In 2007 Charles became the oldest golfer to make a cut on the European Tour at the New Zealand Open. Charles shot a 68 in the second round, beating his age by three strokes. He would go on to finish in a tie for 23rd place.
Charles’s move to the Senior PGA Tour was very lucrative and successful with 23 titles; and in three years 1988, 1989 and 1993, he recorded lowest scoring average. He finished second on the European Seniors Tour’s 2007 Wentworth Senior Masters at the age of 71. He was the first left-hander to win a major, but also the first lefty to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, in the veterans category. He was inducted in 2008. He would remain the only lefty inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame until Phil Mickelson was elected in 2011.
At the Senior British Open Championship in 2010, Charles announced in an ESPN interview that he would retire from golf, stating that he was “74 years old, travelling this world for 50 years, and it’s time to slow down and spend more time on my farm in New Zealand with my family.”