Remembering Casper, the game’s gentleman golfer

Billy Casper passed away Saturday at the age of 83. He was one of the finest gentlemen in the history of the game and one of the sport’s most underrated players.

His record speaks for itself. His 51 PGA career wins ranks him seventh all-time. He won two U.S. Opens and one Masters. He won at least one tournament a year from 1956 to 1971, which was a record exceeded by only Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Casper played on eight Ryder Cup teams, and his 23.5 points are the most won by an American player. He also served as captain in 1979 at The Greenbrier, when the U.S. beat Europe by a score of 17-11.

Casper’s greatest victory came in the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, where he entered the final nine holes seven shots behind Palmer. Let’s hear the rest of the story in Casper’s own words from a 2012 interview I did with him for a previous story:

“I’d played the front nine in 36, one over par. I was still the closest of anyone in the field to Arnold, but that wasn’t saying much. I was seven shots behind with nine holes to play. You could practically feel the energy generated by Arnold’s front nine.

“Every hole, the crowd got bigger — until it reached a certain critical mass and actually began to get smaller as some people, their views completely obscured, gave up and left the course for home so they could watch Arnie win on TV. I couldn’t leave, but I was as ready to place the U.S. Open crown on Arnold Palmer’s head as anyone.

“At that point I was two shots ahead of Jack Nicklaus and Tony Lema, and as we stood on the 10th tee about to start the final nine, I said to Arnold, ‘I’d like to finish second.’ He answered, ‘I’ll do everything I can to help you.’ It was a lighthearted exchange; mine an acknowledgement of his commanding lead, and his an acknowledgement that of course he’d help me finish second — by finishing first.”

Over the next couple of hours, Palmer’s game unraveled, and Casper slowly but surely picked up ground and eventually made up the seven-shot deficit. It was one of the most incredible comebacks in the history of the U.S. Open. Both players were tied after 72 holes, and an 18-hole playoff would begin at 10:30 the next morning. Casper picks up the story:

“As impressive as anything Arnold Palmer did in his entire career was the way that he handled the press conference that followed. Over the years, as I have watched countless heartbreaking losses at sporting events, live and on television, and sometimes seen the victims of those skip out on press conferences or give surly one-word responses to the media, I think of Arnold that day at Olympic.”

Dan Jenkins was covering the U.S. Open for Sports Illustrated, and on Sunday he told me the following.

“I just remember how (ticked off) off Arnold was (mostly at himself) and yet how sportingly he held it in. … Nobody during Casper’s peak years ever wanted to copy any part of his game, but all he did was win tournaments and finish high. If anyone ever came close to hitting as many fairways and greens as Hogan, it may have been Billy. I watched that last nine holes and I still can’t believe what I was seeing.

“Most of us in the press were rooting for Arnold, of course, and rooting for him to break Hogan’s 72-hole record. Arnold did confess later that he was thinking more about breaking the record than making sure he won the championship. Arnold took that loss real hard, but I’m not among those who thought he never got over it. He went on to challenge and came close to winning the PGAs of ’68 and ’70.”

And Casper saw it the same way, “For almost an hour they grilled Palmer about this shot and that shot, and this decision and that decision. He sat there and took it until the last question was asked. When it was over a USGA official asked him if he wanted to exit by a side door so he could avoid the crowds out front. ‘Naw,’ he said, ‘The way I played, I deserve whatever they do to me.’”

After the news conference, Palmer and Casper went their separate ways. Palmer went to a friend’s house in the city and had a quiet dinner. Casper previously agreed to do a fireside chat at a Mormon meeting house about 40 miles north of San Francisco. Little did Casper know when he agreed to do the fireside chat that he would be involved in an 18-hole playoff the following day for the U.S. Open.

“A deal’s a deal. I changed and drove straight to the church, arriving almost an hour late. The chapel was full. No one had left. I can remember the length of every putt and exactly what club I hit on every shot that Sunday, but to this day the most I can remember about that fireside chat is talking about my trip to Vietnam. But I must have said something mildly interesting because it was after 11 o’clock when the meeting ended,” recalled Casper.

Casper returned to the house where he was staying in San Francisco. He hadn’t eaten since lunch. His wife, Shirley, turned on the grill and he had a midnight dinner of pork chops, green beans and salad. Then, in his own words, “I went to bed and slept like a man with nothing to lose.”

On Monday, Casper fired a 69 compared to Palmer’s 73 to win the U.S. Open title. For his efforts, Casper won $25,000, of which he gave 10 percent to the Mormon Church. A forgotten stat from the ’66 Open is that there were only 15 rounds under 70 the entire week, and Casper had four of them.

Only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have a higher percentage of wins and top 10 finishes per start than Casper. Only Woods (8) has more Vardon Trophies than Casper (5). Many would place Casper among the 10 best golfers in history.

More importantly, he is considered to be one of the finest men ever to play the professional game. He and Shirley raised 11 children. The Caspers devoted their lives to their church, family and others who needed help.

That is how Billy Casper would like to be remembered.