Billy Casper – One of the best players ever
Billy Casper passed away a few days ago at the age of 83. A winner of 51 PGA Tour tournaments, 69 tournaments worldwide and three major championships, he was often overlooked in discussions of the great players of the 60’s and 70’s. Only six players have won more PGA Tour events in their careers. He won his titles when Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were at their peak. Why didn’t he get the same respect? He lacked the Palmer charisma, the Nicklaus power and strength, and the Player physical fitness.
Billy Casper didn’t look the part. He wasn’t a picture of physical fitness. His weight fluctuated greatly. He was famous for his buffalo meal diet. He lost a lot of weight, but generally he played his best when he was a bit pudgy and overweight. His personality was subdued and he generally shied away from the spotlight. His golf game was said to be boring. Down the middle with a small slice and not very far was his game plan. Then put it on the green and let his putter do the rest. His outlook on life change in his early 30’s when he and his wife became Mormons. His family includes five natural and six adopted children and 71 grandchildren. He was very intense on the golf course, to the point that slight disruptions or noises would bother him greatly. He was not always the most pleasant person to play with. However, he was a consummate competitor. You were always going to get the best that he had to offer on the golf course. Off the course, he was smart, outgoing, a great storyteller, insightful and generous with his time and talents.
I have two Billy Casper stories that I am going to relate. The first is a story that was told to me by Eric Monti, the longtime head professional at Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, where I was an assistant golf pro for three years in the early 70’s. Eric was a great player in his own right. He played on the PGA Tour from around 1947 to the mid 1960’s while being the head professional at Hillcrest. He won four times on Tour and had one top five finish in the US Open. Hillcrest has one of the richest memberships in California. In 1954 a group of members wanted to sponsor a couple of amateurs from San Diego on the PGA Tour. They brought them up to LA to interview them and to have them play golf with Eric. They played a round of golf and then asked Eric’s opinion. Eric said the one young man had as good a swing as he had seen and was very impressed with his temperament and golf game. He said he would make a lot of money and be a huge success on the PGA Tour. Well that was pretty easy analysis, because that young man was Gene Littler and he had already won the US Men’s Amateur, the California Amateur and starred on the Walker Cup team in 1953. His PGA career included 29 wins and one US Open win. The second player was Billy Casper. Eric’s advice to Bill in 1954 was to get a good education and find a nice paying job and forget about playing professional golf for a living. Eric told me that Billy would hit these low running hooks that looked terrible. He shot about 75 and was totally outclassed by how Littler played. He said his short game was pretty good (that’s an understatement), but that you couldn’t survive with only that on the tour. He smiled as he related this story. He really whiffed, because you can’t measure the heart and desire on such a short visit. In a small sample, Eric recognized Billy’s skill with the wedge and putter, but how would he do in pressure and not in a friendly game. Casper proved to be one of the best pressure players of all time. His 23 ½ point total in Ryder Cup competitions is an American record. Also, he won five Vardon Trophy’s for lowest scoring average in a season. Only Tiger Woods has won more scoring titles.
My second story about Billy Casper occurred about 25 years ago at Lakewood Country Club in Colorado when I was the head professional there. We had a big outing and Billy Casper was the featured speaker and gave an exhibition on the short game. I was assisting Mr. Casper and was right next to him as he conducted the demonstration that took place in the bunker by the 18th green in front of our clubhouse. He was entertaining, informative, funny, and displayed skill that I was in awe of. We had about 200 or more spectators around the green and they would call out a shot and he would hit every shot precisely. For a golf professional like myself, who has played at a high level, the skill that I was witnessing was remarkable. The average spectator witnessing this exhibition couldn’t grasp the difficulty or how expertly he performed these delicate shots. The last shot that he performed was a totally buried lie. At the beginning of the presentation he buried one ball at the end of the bunker and totally covered it. About every 15 minutes he would refer to that ball and told everyone to remember where it was and that he would hit it last. After a great exhibition, he hit that last ball. My lasting impression of Billy Casper is of him running around in the bunker with his arms in the air and whopping like a little kid. He was so elated and was having so much fun. It wasn’t fake, he was ecstatic. Why? Because he HOLED that totally covered buried ball!!!! What a show!!!
I have had the privilege of playing with and witnessing some of the finest short game wizards ever. My top three are Dave Stockton, Billy Casper, and Paul Runyan. Right behind would be Jerry Barber and Dow Finsterwald. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods in their prime were great, but overall they were a grade below my top three. I could make an argument for any of the first three to be the best ever short game player. But the best player in that group is definitely William Earl Casper Jr. Thank you for your contribution to the game of golf and all of us are glad you didn’t take Eric Monti’s advice.