The Greatness of Billy Casper

He was as heroic as he was humble, an even better person than a player.

One of my favorite photos of Billy Casper—that is, besides the one of the two of us taken at The Club at Ravenna (above) during his company’s brief management of the private Littleton club in 2013—is the famous one of him sinking a putt during his 1966 U.S. Open victory at Olympic Club (below).

He had come back from seven shots behind Arnold Palmer on the back nine to force an 18-hole playoff with Palmer, which Casper then won by four strokes. What compels me about the photograph is the contrast between Casper’s celebratory posture and the incredibly mixed reaction from the gallery behind him.

The women, for the most part, look shocked and distressed, while the majority of the men display the kind of positive excitement that normally surrounds a major victory.

Such was Casper’s lot that the Open would go down as the popular Palmer’s defeat rather than as Casper’s victory; never mind that Casper’s four-under 32 on the back nine at Olympic capped off four sub-70 rounds.

Like Francis Ouimet and Chick Evans, who had the misfortune of being contemporaries of the amazing Bobby Jones, Casper had the bad luck of playing in the same era as Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. He even called his autobiography, The Big Three and Me.

Casper, who passed away February 7 at the age of 83, never achieved the kind of popularity or notoriety the other three received, despite 51 PGA TOUR victories (seventh all time), three major championships, a record 23½ Ryder Cup points and five Vardon Trophies. He won at least one PGA TOUR tournament in 16 consecutive years.

But Casper’s achievements coincided with the rise of Mark McCormack’s International Management Group, which represented The Big Three (although Nicklaus’s affiliation didn’t last as long as Palmer’s or Player’s). Coupled with a conservative playing style and an admittedly “grouchy” on-course demeanor modeled after Ben Hogan, Casper never captured the imagination of the televised golf audience—unless it was for some idiosyncrasy, like his hypoallergenic diet of buffalo, hippopotamus and wild game.

He did, however, earn the respect of his contemporaries. The great Byron Nelson, who had one more PGA TOUR victory than Casper, said, “If I had to pick a man to play one round, and my life depended on it, that man would be Billy Casper. This man simply is a great player, although he never has been given credit for it.”

Golfers past and present, as well as commentators have also paid homage.

Being perhaps the most underrated golfer in modern history never appeared to bother him. He played golf to support his family—and he played it and supported his wife, Shirley, and their 11 children extraordinarily well. He also founded Billy Casper Golf more than 25 years ago, and today it employs 7,600 employees and ranks as largest owner-operator of golf courses, country clubs and resorts in the United States.

Casper’s devotion to the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints, his family and philanthropic endeavors such as the Billy Casper Youth Foundation and the Wounded Warrior project brought him a sanguine sense of spiritual fulfillment and wisdom that no amount of professional adoration could replace. He shared those traits with David Feherty in a moving 2013 interview, and even with me.

“I’m just overpowered with emotion day after day,” he told me during our conversation. “It’s just the most beautiful time in my life.”

That life, as we knew it, ended last Saturday. But his legacy endures. “The blessing we receive from material things can go no further,” he said in 2013. “We take nothing with us. What I want to be remembered for is my love for my fellow man.”


Oh, Billy, Bily, Billy: Billy Casper Comes to Colorado

Forethoughts: The Golden Boys

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.