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Casper finds fame late in career

In his prime, Billy Casper was overlooked. Now he gains recognition for his accomplishments.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2001

In his prime, Billy Casper was overlooked. Now he gains recognition for his accomplishments.

His Masters victory more than three decades ago earned him a lifetime pass to Augusta National, so Billy Casper will make the drive down Magnolia Lane, smell the azaleas and tee it up in next week's tournament.

It is one of the nice touches at the year's first major championship, which honors its past by inviting champions to compete for life.

Yet the Masters and the golf world at large probably cannot do enough to honor Casper for his accomplishments in the game. They are almost as ignored as they are monumental.

In an era where double-digit victories and multiple major championship titles can earn a golfer worldwide acclaim, Casper, 69, would unquestionably be among the first names mentioned when picking the game's best.

But it didn't work that way for a man who always seemed to get more attention for his allergies, his conversion to Mormonism, his 11 children (six adopted) and his unusual diet of buffalo meat, long since abandoned.

And it didn't help that he was competing against Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Those greats tended to overshadow Casper, who nevertheless held his own against them.

"I think the record proves it," Casper said. "Not many people have won the Vardon Trophy five times. And not many people have won 50 tournaments in their career. There's only six of us."

Tiger Woods chases history, but Casper's name is rarely mentioned among those being pursued. Casper won 51 PGA Tour events, including two U.S. Opens and the 1970 Masters, and five Vardon Trophies for low scoring average. He was the first player to surpass $200,000 in earnings in a season and had such a smooth putting stroke, Ben Crenshaw would blush.

During one 10-year period, Casper won 17 tour events while Nicklaus, Palmer and Player combined to win 22.

He was a member of eight Ryder Cup teams, winning more points, 23.5, than any other American. His five Vardon Trophies is a record, matched only by Lee Trevino. He was PGA Player of the Year in 1966 and 1970.

During Casper's prime, however, the Big Three -- Palmer, Nicklaus and Player -- ruled. Or so it seemed.

From 1964 to 1970, Casper won 27 PGA Tour events, eight more than Palmer and Player combined, and four more than Nicklaus.

"Jack won more tournaments; so did Arnold. But I wasn't far behind them," said Casper, whose 51 tour titles place him sixth all time.

"But it really didn't make any difference to me. I think the media has probably made more out of it later on in my life. I've probably gotten more publicity now than then. Earlier, I probably wouldn't have appreciated it.

"It really didn't make that much difference to me. I was successful. I had a nice, large family. I had no money to start with, and my main goal was to make enough money to make my family feel right. The family was always my first goal. So it really didn't bother me because I knew what I was doing. I was achieving my goals."

Indeed, Casper is best known for being overlooked. He won at least one tournament a year from 1956 through 1971, and during the heyday of the Big Three -- from 1964 to 1970 -- he won 27 tour events, including two majors. Casper won six tournaments in 1968 and four each in 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1970.

"Billy didn't get a fair shake," Johnny Miller said.

Some of that had to do with the power promoting machine that is the International Management Group, which in the '60s represented Nicklaus, Palmer and Player. Part of it had to do with Casper himself.

He was considered grouchy, someone who seldom smiled and often got mad at himself. He seemed distant, a loner. And God forbid anyone interrupt his pre-shot routine. If so, he would put the club back in the bag and start over.

"(Ben) Hogan was an idol," he said. "I sort of patterned my way of playing after him."

Casper's disposition may have contributed to his lack of popularity. He was a tactician on the course, not a flamboyant go-for-broke player like Palmer, nor a powerful one like Nicklaus. When he won the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Casper needed 114 putts. At one point, he had nine consecutive one-putt greens.

"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."

In keeping with form, Casper's greatest victory is usually remembered for who lost. It was at the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club where Casper overcame a seven-stroke deficit with nine holes to play to tie Palmer. Casper then defeated Palmer the next day in an 18-hole playoff after trailing by two shots at the turn.

"That's probably the one that stands out in the mind of everybody, and of course, me, too," Casper said. "To be seven shots behind with nine holes to play . . . it's almost unheard of. Then to be two shots behind in the playoff and catch Arnold on the 11th hole and go on and win pretty soundly . . . it really was a great, great thrill and most unbelievable experience."

Today, Casper, who turns 70 in June, is going strong, doing dozens of corporate outings, playing golf, tending to his design business and family. And there are no regrets.

"People have become aware of Billy Casper," he said. "It really has been a blessing that I didn't get all that publicity early in my career. I'm getting more and more of it now. I'm having the time of my life right now. The corporate outings, the appearances . . . (I'm) almost 70 years old. They still want me around. It's wonderful."

All-time PGA titles

1. Sam Snead, 81

2. Jack Nicklaus, 70

3. Ben Hogan, 63

4. Arnold Palmer, 60

5. Byron Nelson, 52

6. Billy Casper, 51

7. Walter Hagen, 40

7. Cary Middlecoff, 40

9. Gene Sarazen, 38

10. Lloyd Mangrum, 36

11. Tom Watson, 34

* Tiger Woods is tied for 19th at 26 with Henry Picard.

PGA Tour

WHAT: BellSouth Classic.

WHEN: Today-Sunday.

WHERE: Duluth, Ga.

COURSE: TPC at Sugarloaf (7,259 yards, par 72).

PURSE: $3.3-million. Winner's share: $594,000.

TV: USA (today-Friday, 4-6 p.m.) and Ch. 8 (Saturday, 2-4 p.m.; Sunday, 12:30-4 p.m.).

NOTES: Tiger Woods, the 1998 winner, is skipping the tournament to prepare for the Masters. David Duval, the 1999 champion, also is missing after withdrawing from the Players Championship because of tendinitis in his right wrist. He plans to return next week for the Masters. ... John Daly, the 1994 winner at Atlanta Country Club, has earned $199,721 in eight events this year. He made $115,460 in 26 starts last year.

Senior PGA Tour

WHAT: Legends of Golf.

WHEN: Friday-Sunday.

WHERE: St. Augustine.

COURSE: World Golf Village, The King & The Bear Course (6,606 yards, par 72).

PURSE: $1.8-million. Winner's share: $240,000.

TV: ESPN (Friday, 4-6 p.m.) and Ch. 28 (Saturday, 1-3 p.m.; Sunday, 2-4 p.m.).

NOTES: Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, the designers of The King & The Bear Course, will play together for the first time in the tournament. ... Sam Snead and Gardner Dickinson won the inaugural event in 1978, sparking interest that led to the creation of the senior tour in 1980. ... The Legends and Legendary divisions will use a best-ball format in the first and third rounds, and a modified alternate-shot format in the second. Tour

WHEN: Today-Sunday

WHERE: Broussard, La.

COURSE: LeTriomphe Country Club (7,004 yards, par 72).

PURSE: $450,000. Winner's share: $81,000.

NOTES: Rob McKelvey finished 16th on the money list last season, missing 15th place and a spot on the PGA Tour by $5,924.

Other tournaments

PGA EUROPEAN TOUR: Argentina Open, today-Sunday.

LPGA TOUR: The Office Depot Hosted by Amy Alcott, April 12-14, Los Angeles.

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