Billy Casper Comes to Colorado

Billy Casper Golf is now managing The Golf Club at ravenna, a stunning private club

Underrated by the media but never underestimated by opponents, the legendary Billy Casper now looks to move The Golf Club at Ravenna way up the leaderboard.

Putter in hand, Billy Casper stands out against the flat light of an overcast morning at The Golf Club at Ravenna.

His company, Billy Casper Golf, has just made the stunning private club near Waterton Canyon the first Colorado property among the 150 courses it manages, and he’s working the practice green as “ambassador-at-large and company diplomat.” A month short of his 82nd birthday, the winner of 51 PGA Tour events and three majors jokingly promises to teach his “full repertoire…of alibis” to the roughly 100 members and guests before demonstrating the putting stroke that once inspired Chi Chi Rodriguez to joke, “Billy Casper could sink a 40-foot putt just by winking at it.”

Chatting avuncularly the whole time, he gives the ball a brisk, wristy pop and lags six 40-foot breakers within a few feet of the hole. As he proceeds to surround a closer pin with bump-and-runs and delicate chips from the fringe, it’s clear he still has what Johnny Miller called “the greatest pair of hands God ever gave a human being.” To put an exclamation point on it, Casper chips a few over a stand bag, and sneaks one under the kickstand for laughs.

It’s an impressive, well-honed yet seemingly spontaneous performance. He knocks in the six putts while regaling the gallery with tales from his playing heyday. There’s the story of the three-footer he holed to win the 1965 Bob Hope Desert Classic that Dwight Eisenhower called “a ‘knee-knocker’ but it really wasn’t,” and a similar putt a few years later at the Carling World Championships that did actually make his knees quaver as he thought about the $18,000 difference —“$6,000 a foot!”—between first and second place. (“I had to back away, stop thinking about the money and focus on the fundamentals I used on the practice green,” he says. “What do you think I did then? I stepped up and made it.”)

He center-cuts a three-footer and everyone applauds.

He proceeds to list the choices that made him what he is today: hitting golf balls in the New Mexico cow pastures as a dirt-poor four-year-old; caddying as an 11-year-old in San Diego; meeting and marrying Shirley, his wife of 64 years; joining the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints at the height of his playing career in 1966; and starting a golf management company that has grown from seven employees to a “family 6,000 strong.”

One choice he doesn’t mention is the one he made in 1962, three years after winning the first of his two U.S. Opens, to leave Mark McCormack’s fledgling International Management Group. IMG also represented Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Dow Finsterwald, George Bayer and was about to sign Jack Nicklaus. Casper preferred the more individualized representation of H.M. “Dick” Taylor, who had broken off from IMG to start his own agency.

But Taylor soon got out of the agent business, by which time McCormack had branded Palmer, Nicklaus and Player “The Big Three” even though the trio acknowledges “there was a player who was winning as often as we were, a player we kept an eye on and worried about just as much, if not more, than each other. His name was Billy Casper.”

Casper could more than have completed the foursome. During his career he won 51 of the 556 tournaments he entered—a 9.2 winning percentage that ranks second only to Nicklaus (12.3) among golfers whose careers began and ended after 1950. In fact, between 1962 and 1970, Casper and Nicklaus tied for most wins on Tour with 33, while Palmer won 30 times and Player, eight. From 1964 through 1970, Casper won two more times (27) than Nicklaus did and six more than Palmer and Player combined. 

Casper’s five Vardon Trophies for the PGA Tour’s lowest scoring average are five more than Nicklaus or Player won and one more than Palmer has. His 23½ Ryder Cup points remain a U.S. Team record. And he won the 1966 U.S. Open and 1970 Masters in 18-hole playoffs.

Despite these accomplishments, however, Casper never received the media attention or recognition that McCormack’s triumvirate got. Maybe, Casper shares later in private, it was because “McCormack was at odds with me for a major part of his life.” Maybe, I counter, it was because the conservative way he played was overshadowed by the idiosyncratic aspects of his life. Like his conversion to Mormonism. Like his and Shirley’s 11 children. Like the allergies that resulted in a rotating diet of buffalo, elk, caribou, hippopotamus and other unusual protein sources.

In many ways, though, Casper played Roger Maris to Palmer’s Mickey Mantle. The popular Palmer had his “army,” the workaday Casper had a huge family to support. “The media and fans thought I was a grump or a grouch on the golf course,” he says, then pauses “…. and I was.” A hearty laugh follows. “And I was!”

Casper modeled himself after Ben Hogan, the “wee ice mon” who, like him, had endured a hardscrabble upbringing. “Hogan was my idol,” he says. “The way he conducted himself on the golf course, he was in a hypnotic trance so to speak. That’s the way I played. I was in the same trance on the golf course. So consequently a lot of people didn’t get to know Billy Casper.”

They’d get to know him reading last year’s autobiography, The Big Three and Me—a stack of which await his signature, as do a pile of Masters flags, in Ravenna’s temporary but well-appointed clubhouse. This is the book David Feherty called “extraordinary” during a recent interview with Casper. The subject of Casper’s son David’s drug addiction and imprisonment made Feherty—a one-time substance abuser—stop filming three times to wipe the tears from his eyes.

The pages of Casper’s book drip with sincerity, humility, and pride without hubris. We learn about a man who, through golf, went from living in a trailer and subsisting on lima beans to dining with U.S. Presidents, movie stars and the King of Morocco, who made him an honorary citizen; starting the second largest golf management business in the country; enduring the struggles with his son; finding his faith; and orchestrating the hugely successful Billy’s Kids Golf Classic for the Billy Casper Youth Foundation. He is as far from a grump or a grouch as one can get.

Although the book naturally contains a dramatic shot-by-shot recap of the 1966 U.S. Open, which he won in a playoff after coming back from seven shots down with nine holes to play in the final round at Olympic, nothing beats listening to the man himself vividly relive how he caught Arnold Palmer that Sunday.

To this day, golf historians describe the back nine in terms of a Palmer choke instead of a Casper comeback. Yes, Palmer shot a 39 but Casper shot 32.

“You know how many rounds were shot in the 60s that week?” Casper asks as he finishes his tale. “Fifteen. You know how many I had? Four. So you might say I was playing pretty well.”

The dust jacket for the book features a photograph of Casper exulting after sinking the winning putt. “Look at the faces in the gallery,” he says without bitterness. “More than half of them are upset. They were Arnold’s fans.”

Vanquishing the beloved Palmer, who in 1960 had authored the greatest charge in U.S. Open history, with an even more dramatic comeback somehow only put him in the category of Jack Fleck, who had similarly defeated Ben Hogan at Olympic in 1955—and with whom Casper appeared when the Open returned there last June.

How fitting, then, that Billy Casper Golf has come to Ravenna to help stage its comeback—a Ravennaissance, as it were.

Highlighted by a dramatic 7,263-yard Jay Morrish layout and 243 spectacular home sites set amid red rocks and conifers, Ravenna debuted in 2007 with a splash, cracking Golf Digest’s list of 10 Best New Private Courses and establishing residency among Golfweek’s Top 100 Best Modern Courses and Best Courses of Distinction.

Plans for the 636-acre development called for a 40,000-square-foot clubhouse, stunning Mediterranean homes, full-on concierge services and a vintner’s club.

But the recession hit Ravenna hard. Carrying more than $36 million in project debt, the owner, River Canyon Real Estate Investments, endured three years of hearings, negotiations, innuendo and misinformation about the club’s fiscal health. Managing member Glenn Jacks deftly navigated the treacherous financial and legal waters, keeping his hand on the tiller and the community’s 60 existing members and homeowners informed. “They stood 100 percent behind me as we put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” he says. “We are in the final steps of emerging from Chapter 11 reorganization and proceeding with vigor and pace.”

Tricking Dick
—Billy Casper

Earlier this year, Jacks assembled an investment group, appropriately named Lazarus, and signed on Casper’s team to manage all aspects of the golf operation, including course and property maintenance, marketing, membership sales, staffing and training, merchandising, restaurant and banquet activities, special events, golf instruction and financial management.

“Billy Casper Golf’s management philosophy aligns perfectly with our vision for this golf community,” Jacks says. “Given the stability in the market and a recent resurgence in real estate, we are excited to count them among our team.”

Billy Casper Golf Chairman and CEO Peter Hill, with whom Billy Casper founded the company more than 25 years ago, is bullish on the project. “With a stunning mountain setting, excellent golf-course conditions and terrific sense of community, Ravenna is poised for success,” he says.

Construction of a clubhouse significantly scaled back from the original 40,000-square-foot model should commence this year. “It’ll be a cooler, more intimate concept, but everything it was meant to be,” says Jacks, referencing such amenities as the concierge service and the pool that will open adjacent to the clubhouse. Plans call for 114 lock-and-leave golf villas priced between $650,000 and $1 million.

Ravenna has engaged Fuller Sotheby’s International Realty as the exclusive marketing broker, and interest in a gated community set amid the red-rock outcroppings near Pike National Forest has spiked, according to listing broker Dale Schossow. Of the property’s 243 lots, 166 remain available, with three under contract as of mid-June. Home sites start in the $200,000s and custom homes at $1.2 million.

Those numbers exceed the largest purse Billy Casper ever won. In 47 years on the PGA and Champions tours, he earned a total slightly north of $3 million. “I’m scared to think of what I’d make now,” he says. “We had it good.”

He has no regrets about leaving IMG, a decision that probably cost him millions and a spot in history. When he talks about the Big Three, he chokes up describing how he recently woke up crying on a flight home to Salt Lake City: “I felt I needed to write letters to Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, telling them how much each of them meant to my life, and what a humbling feeling it was to have played with such great champions. Knowing them enriched me in a special way.”

At this point in Billy Casper’s life, spiritual enrichment is the measure of his wealth. It’s what he shares with everyone he encounters. After all, as the man universally acknowledged as the most underrated player in golf history  says, “the blessing we receive from material things can’t go any further. We take nothing with us.

For membership information about The Golf Club at Ravenna, call Amy Rome at 866-255-6680 or visit

Colorado AvidGolfer is the state’s leading resource for golf and the lifestyle that surrounds it. It publishes eight issues annually and proudly delivers daily content via www.coloradoavidgolfer.comJon Rizzi is the founding editor and co-owner of this regional golf-related media company producing magazines, web content, tournaments, events and the Golf Passport.