Charlie Bristow travels America playing golf. When he’s not on the road, he lives at home with his parents and works in the local grocery store. Charlie plays out of Oak Marsh, a public course in Minnesota. His best ever score is a 73 and yet he has more than 55,000 devoted followers of his @charliesgolfingclub account on Instagram.
Charlie has autism and scoliosis of the spine. Now 26, he took up golf in 2009 after attending a golf class for children with disabilities at the Courage Center in Stillwater, Minnesota.
Four years later, he underwent major back surgery to address a severe bend in his back. “After Charlie got straightened out, he got taller," explains his father Bill, who is retired and now travels the United States with Charlie, caddying for him and documenting his progress. “He had to essentially invent his own swing.”
The result is a golf swing quite unlike any other. This extraordinary action, along with his personality and efforts to raise money for autism charities, has made Charlie Bristow a social media star. In 13 years of touring, he has played 254 courses and raised more than $58,000.
We caught up with Charlie and Bill after they had just completed their recent 31-course tour of the Midwest.
Your golf tours are epic undertakings that see you playing so many courses with so many different people. How has this helped Charlie?
Bill Bristow: Before Charlie took up golf, and this is the biggest thing I tell people about autism, he wouldn't look you in the eye. He wouldn't shake your hand, he wouldn't talk to you and don't even think of hugging him. Now, Charlie realises golfers are fun people.
The first time he got paired up with somebody he was flat out intense, as I would say. After that, when we got in the car, I told him, 'Charlie, I don't know anything about golf but I will tell you this: 95% of golfers are really, really nice people. But you're never going to know that unless you play with them.'
Over the years, it's gotten to be that Charlie will go up and ask them about their favourite PGA tour professionals, what clubs they use, what clubs they like to hit. I've seen reactions from people. If they don't know that they're paired up with Charlie, some people are like, 'Oh, man, we're we're playing with this little kid' and that kind of stuff, not realising his age and not knowing that he puts that ball in the fairway!
Charlie has a large and loyal Instagram following. How has this grown?
Bill Bristow: In July 2022, Charlie had 45 followers on Instagram. Seven days after we got back from Montana, I posted two videos of him playing golf at Grey Wolf in Panorama, British Columbia. He was teeing off on the signature hole, which is called ‘The Cliffhanger’. It's 142 yards over a huge ravine. Charlie took his 4-hybrid, which is his 150 club, and put it on the other side. (Watch video).
“I'm glad I’ve got 55,000 followers and how much people really appreciate me for what I’ve done” — Charlie Bristow
The other video was from Hole No. 5 at a course called Wildstone in Cranbrook, British Columbia. I didn't realise that video was just going to go nuts. I now realise why it did. It’s because it shows Charlie's swing up close and also it was so scenic with the mountains in the background. That video has had 9 million views.
Charlie Bristow: I'm glad I’ve got 55,000 followers and how much people really appreciate me for what I've done, especially with golf.
Bill Bristow: Charlie's just focussed. The best example I can give is after I retired, we stopped in at one of my old retailers on the way up to a golf course. She asked Charlie what he thought about all the followers that he has throughout the world. Charlie just looked at the lady, matter of fact, and said, ‘Let's just get on with the golf.’
How can other golfers support Charlie?
Bill Bristow: We have two ways of people donating. They can either donate on the website of the individual charities that we raise money for, like Fraser, the Autism Society of Minnesota and Autism Adventures. If they let us know how much they donated, we add it to our totals. Otherwise, if they want to pledge or donate directly to Charlie’s tours, they can send an email to email@example.com. We also have a GoFundMe page.
Several people donate based on how Charlie does. It's either $30 for the season based on how many holes he plays, which is usually 85 courses. We send them an email with the contact, at the charity they want to donate to.
We have other people that donate based on pars and birdies. They donate 25 cents for every par, 50 cents for a birdie and $25 for a hole in one or an eagle. We give them that number at the end of the season based on how much they agreed to donate.
And on the subject of holes in one, congratulations on recently getting your first, Charlie! We can see from Clippd how strong your game is in certain areas, particularly putting . Your Player Quality for putting is currently at 86, which is the level we’d expect from a scratch golfer.
Charlie Bristow: I appreciate that. That makes me feel that I can do better in putting. I can read greens, I can look both ways, from my side and the opposite side of the hole. I can visualise where that ball's going to go in relation to where my putting stroke goes, because I kind of have a straight back, straight through motion.
Your stroke is very unusual with its very short backswing, but it’s highly effective!
Charlie Bristow: I take my time on putting. I never rush at a five foot putt or three foot putt. I try to just stay in the moment and make my putting routine as easy as possible.
And we can see from all the putting drills in your Clippd account how much practice you are putting in.
Charlie Bristow: I understand that putting is the answer to scoring pretty much. I take it very seriously. I take my practice very seriously. I never regret anything. I just think that putting is the most important part of the golf game.
Your What to Work On priority list in Clippd shows that when you drive the ball well, you tend to score well. Does that feel right to you, Charlie?
Charlie Bristow: I'm trying to figure out the driver situation. In general I'm trying to keep my stance a lot closer than more wide at address. Whenever I sit up to a ball, I try to keep my feet closer together rather than way far apart. I feel confident that I'll be able to be accurate and be long. Hopefully, that should be great for me.
Bill Bristow: Charlie's going to start to work with a trainer for the winter. We're going to try to get him some strength. That way, when he does take a swing, he'll get more distance. But we're going to try to retain the accuracy of course!
I always told him in high school golf, people would be driving the ball 20, 30, 40 yards longer than him. But if you put the ball in the fairway, you might not beat all these people, but you're going to make it a lot easier and it'll equalise a lot of stuff that they're doing.
“We’re there to raise money, so if it makes them feel like inviting us back, that’s great” — Bill Bristow
He'll probably always be the best in putting but if we can make his drives a little longer it’s going to really help.
Bill, when was the last time you and Charlie played golf together?
Bill Bristow: Oh, it's been a while. I'd slow him down. We made the determination a long time ago that I would not play with Charlie on his golf tours for the good reason that he gets invited to a lot of private courses. I don't want him to feel like I'm just there getting a free round. We're there to raise money, so if it makes them feel like inviting us back, that's great.
I probably played with him once or twice these last two years. If we do, we'll play at his home course at Oak Marsh, so at least I'm familiar with it. I tell him, 'Charlie, think about it. When you start golfing, you're shooting in the 120s. Just think about how long it would take for me to get up to your level?'
Learn more about Charlie and support his efforts via @charliesgolfingclub