PGA Great, Billy Casper, Will Be Missed
It has been a difficult month for losing professional golfers who accompanied me through my early years. Last week, we lost Charlie Sifford, who broke the color barriers of the PGA Tour, and this week, William Earl Casper, better known as Billy, left us.
How many fans under the age of forty or fifty remember Billy Casper? If you claim to know the real history of the game, it’s a no-no if you don’t. That he was the 7th winningest golfer on the tour’s history is almost irrelevant to the bigger picture. His two U.S. Opens and one Masters victory doesn’t even begin to tell the story.
Part of the problem could be found in our adoration of “The Big Three” during the era of the 50s and 60s. We hailed the triumvirate that included a muscle-bound farm boy from Pennsylvania, a shot-making genius from Ohio, and a competitive, innovative star from South Africa. That covered up a lot of other people playing great golf. Billy Casper just didn’t catch on in the same way. He was not particularly charismatic, and he had weight issues, which were overlooked for Nicklaus.
Billy Casper was among the most consistent golfers who ever played the game. Colleague Dave Marr once said that he “gave you the terrible feeling he was never going to make a mistake,” a feeling that could be disheartening in either stroke or match play. A winner on the tour fifty-one times, in addition to his majors, Casper also played on several Ryder Cup teams, and captained one.
One of the aspects of golf that truly bookmarked Casper’s career, was putting. By many, he was considered the first great golfer to study putting like an avid scientist, and despite being “a much beloved and underrated player,” according to one writer, opponents such as Ben Hogan were known for not enjoying his presence all because of that one club. He could putt the lights out of a course more often than not, in an instant recognition of all the necessary reads. According to Johnny Miller, Casper possessed “the greatest pair of hands God ever gave a human being.” One pro described Casper’s putter as “a stake through the heart.” Added to that was what Nick Faldo called “his legendary draw,” with which he could land a ball far right on the green, and spin it immediately sideways toward the hole.
All that, however, is just his golf game. Casper was one of the most admired men on tour, dubbed by some as “The Dalai Lama of Golf.” In terms of personal style, he might as well have been called “The Leo Buscaglia of Golf” as well. He was an approachable man who wouldn’t deny anyone a hug. Writer Jim Huber, who followed Casper for years, remarked that “no man I’ve ever known with his kind of credentials has ever been more eager to hug and be hugged.” Casper would spend as much time speaking with fans and signing autographs as they wished, and through the hours, it was rare for anyone to leave the line. The person standing in front of him was always the most important person on earth, and according to an article in Deseret News, Caspeer “gave and gave, until it ran out.”
The man who could put twenty seven-irons within ten yards of the hole in practice, then make almost all of the putts must have driven them crazy in his days on tour. Be that as it may, though, competitors remember him fondly, and speak of Casper as one of the great family men they have known, with a warmth and generosity that extended to the fans – and when asked how he would like to be remembered, his answer wasn’t just a golf answer. “I want to be remembered for how much I loved my fellow man.” It doesn’t get much better than that…and great putting, too.