Casper's successes lost amid bigger names

Published August 13, 2006

The 50th victory of Tiger Woods' PGA Tour career at the Buick Open was met, understandably, with plenty of hype. He joined just six others who have won as many as 50 tournaments, became the youngest to do so and brought into focus - again - just how stellar his career has been at the age of 30.

The last player to hit the 50-victory milestone did so more than 30 years ago - with far less fanfare.

"I don't remember any great fanfare at all," said Billy Casper, 75, in a telephone interview from his Utah home. Casper won his 50th tour event at the 1973 Greater Hartford Open.

"There is much more media involved today than there was in those days, and really, it's great that this is brought out to the public. The events and situations that transpired are things that people don't know anything about.

"The history of the game, the history of the PGA Tour ... they don't know much about that."

Many today don't know much about Casper, who might be the most underrated player in golf history and the most difficult name to come up with in the 50-win club.

Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson - they easily roll off the tongue.

But Casper? He had the fortune and misfortune of competing in the era of Nicklaus, Palmer and Gary Player, although he typically held his own against them.

Woods' next victory - perhaps this week at the PGA Championship outside of Chicago - ties Casper for seventh on the all-time list.

Casper won five Vardon Trophies for low-scoring average, captured three majors championships - two U.S. Opens and a Masters - and was the first in tour history to surpass $200,000 in earnings in one season.

He was a member of eight Ryder Cup teams and amassed 23.5 points, more than any other U.S. player. Before Woods came along, only Lee Trevino had matched Casper's five Vardons (Woods has six). He was PGA player of the year in 1966 and 1970.

But the Big Three - Nicklaus, Palmer and Player - ruled. At least, that was the perception.

Here's a stat that should put Casper's greatness in perspective: From 1964 to 1970, he won 27 PGA Tour events - eight more than Palmer and Player combined, and two more than Nicklaus.

"I think (the media) have made it a very enjoyable time for me as I've gotten older," Casper said. "I've received more recognition than when it was going on. ... I probably appreciate it a lot more now than when I was doing it."

That probably could be said for the others as well.

Nelson was the first to get to 50 wins, in 1946 at the Greater Columbus Open. Asked about it by Golf World, Nelson, 94, said he remembered winning the tournament, but had no idea it was No. 50.

Casper said he doesn't remember much about his 50th, probably because it occurred at an event he won four times.

The same could be said for Nicklaus. The Golden Bear, who finished with 73 tour wins, was credited with his 50th victory at the 1973 PGA Championship, about a month before Casper's victory.

At the time, however, the PGA Tour didn't count British Open victories as tour titles. Nicklaus had two Claret Jugs to that point. So to him, the PGA would have been his 48th win, with No. 50 coming later that year at the Walt Disney World Classic.

Not that it mattered. Nicklaus said last week through a spokesman that he didn't know which was his 50th win.

Nicklaus has often said he rarely kept track of milestones. In fact, he didn't realize his 1970 British Open victory at St. Andrews was his 10th major (including two U.S. Amateurs), putting him three behind Bobby Jones.

The media pointed it out, giving Nicklaus a frame of reference.

Nicklaus and Palmer were such popular and prolific winners during Casper's era, the media were drawn to them.

And Casper admits he was part of the problem. He often seemed distant, a loner. He was a tactician, not a go-for-broke player such as Palmer, nor was he powerful, like Nicklaus. When he won the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., Casper needed just 114 putts and at one point had nine consecutive one-putt greens. He purposely played short of the par-4 third and chipped on to make par each day.

But he had the respect of his peers. "Billy didn't get a fair shake," said Johnny Miller, winner of 25 PGA titles.

"Any time that I was looking at a tournament coming down the stretch, and I looked at the list and I saw that Billy Casper was there, I knew one thing: He wasn't going to beat himself," Nicklaus said. "None of the great players did, and Billy Casper obviously was a great player."

It follows form that perhaps Casper's greatest victory - the 1966 U.S. Open - is remembered more for who lost.

Casper overcame a seven-stroke deficit with nine holes to play at the Olympic Club in San Francisco to tie Palmer. Casper defeated Palmer the next day in an 18-hole playoff after trailing by two shots at the turn.

He says picking out a favorite victory is difficult, he but points to his first win at the 1956 Labatt Open in Canada, his three majors and a victory in Hartford in 1963 after coming back from a hand injury as the most significant.

"They are all great feats, all very important in my life," he said.

So is being a member of the 50-win club. Casper not only expects Woods to surpass him, but he believes "he could potentially win 100, because he won so many in his 20s."

As for anyone else joining him with 50 wins? Well, consider this: The next closest active players on the all-time list are Vijay Singh, 43, and Phil Mickelson, 36. They are tied for 17th place with Lee Trevino, Paul Runyan and Gene Littler with 29 victories.

That means 21 more victories for each - which should make Casper's feat even more impressive.