Billy Casper bent his fingers carefully around the shaft and turned to address his gallery. "You'll notice that I use a Vardon overlapping grip," he remarked in that dry, pedantic clubhouse voice. Then, leaning back and using his arms like pulley ropes, Casper emitted a most ungolflike grunt—and drew a furiously thrashing, 150-pound striped marlin to the surface.
Casper was doing his other thing—fishing—and doing it with the same degree of devotion that he brings to his golf game. As the marlin rolled in exhaustion after half an hour's fight on 20-pound-test line, Casper cut the leader and watched the lean, silvery-blue shape fade into the deep. "As far as I'm concerned," he said, "that kid was a double eagle."
The field of battle was as remote from a golf course as Casper could get—which is precisely why he loves fishing. He was trolling off the bleak, desiccated tip of Baja California, that austere appendage of western Mexico where the billfish throng like alewives and an angler is guaranteed an aching back. Casper's gallery, clustered in various degrees of sunburn on the flying bridge of the 60-foot diesel yacht Martian, included Dr. Marshall Persky, the Casper family pediatrician; Dr. Charles Franklin, the family obstetrician; Captain Ernie Horn, skipper of the Martian and an old fishing buddy of Billy's; and Misael Vargas, a Mexican deckhand whose knowledge of golf only slightly exceeds his understanding of Chinese opera ("You say Se√±or Casper is good putter? What is puttering?"). There was generous applause as Billy boated and released his fish. Mike Vargas even yelled: "Nice feesh, Se√±or Putter!" Billy beamed. "I hope t'shout it is. How you like that for patience and humility?"
Aha! At last a breakthrough on the Casperian emotional front. Finally a crack in the bland clay face. This had to be the real Billy Casper talking, revealing himself as a man subject to pride as are the rest of us. He did indeed revel in victory; he was indeed possessed of a sense of humor! His saintliness, his Mormonism, his freaked-out diet, his clean mouth and cleaner living habits were only a cover—a control—on his essential humanity. Or were they?
July 13, 1969
For five days I'd lived with Billy Casper, and tried to live like him. No cuss words and no booze; no coffee, tea or Coke. I dined on the famous diet, washed it down with glasses of lukewarm bottled spring water and slunk off to the bathroom for a postprandial smoke. I shared long hours of prayer and fasting, and even longer hours of Sunday night TV. Through it all, I had one thing in mind: Billy Casper just can't be as controlled as he appears.
He isn't. Like any other man, Casper is colored by the light from the sparks he strikes. Not all golf fans were dismayed when Billy blew the Masters earlier this year. The tour's most successful exponent of play-it-safe golf had lost because of his own conservatism, and conservatives don't attract many frenzied followers in sport. Mr. Short-Shot lost his lead and became Mr. Also-Ran. Casper's clubhouse remarks in front of national-television cameras sounded like a kind of cop-out: "I'm proud to have finished second." Yet most listeners didn't hear Billy's real brag—that he had retrieved three of the five bogeys he had shot on the front nine, and had ended just a stroke behind the winner. It may well be that the lump of pride Billy Casper swallowed that day contained more spiritual vitamins than any "Oh, pshaw, t'warn't nothin'!" victory statement.
Let me be an advocate. William Earl Casper Jr. is not a machine; he is an existential contradiction. That may well be the only working definition of the human condition. A millionaire on his golf earnings alone, Casper is so austere in his personal life that by contrast a Franciscan monk looks like a swinger. Phlegmatic to the point of dullness (one acquaintance calls him "a walking ad for ennui"), Casper is nonetheless so sensitive to everything from natural gas to apples that he develops agonizing allergies to them. Fanatically committed to discovering everything about the few human activities that interest him, he is virtually innocent of book learning, political opinion and musical or artistic taste. He is a man whose inner drive and self-discipline would make even Vince Lombardi appear a bit of a softie, yet a man who can coo and burble over babies with near-feminine abandon. He is a saint with the instincts of a savage—or maybe vice versa. In short, he is a fascinating human being beside whom the simpler psyches of an Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus fade toward cliché. Yet there is no Casper's Army. There isn't even a Casper's Cadre.
Any of the golf fans who put him down—and oh how they put him down—can recite Casper's credentials: twice winner of the U.S. Open (1959, 1966); PGA Player of the Year (1966); among the top four money-winners in 10 of his 14 years on the tour and a good bet to be there again in 1969 (halfway through this season he has won $79,000 and is ranked fourth.) and, most significant of all, five times winner of the Vardon Trophy, which goes to the golfer with the lowest scoring average of the year. Any golf fan could also tell you about Billy's wizardry with the putter, and about the exotic "wild meat" diet with which he combated his allergies and changed his physique from blimplike to merely bean-shaped. But what the golf fan cannot tell you about is quintessential Casper—the enigma wrapped in anomaly who transcends golf and ends up a metaphysician. To see that Billy Casper, one must live like Billy Casper.
Casper's home, in the dusty hills of Bonita, Calif., just southeast of San Diego, is a cool, roomy Spanish-style stucco house that once belonged to the Spreckels sugar family. The decor, however, is somewhat saccharine: subdued upholstery on overstuffed furniture, a few decorative oils and watercolors, trophies and loving cups and plaques honoring Billy's prowess on the links (including a tragicomic bronze clown's head for his participation in the 1968 Comedians' Golf Classic), a bright Aeolian piano mounted with the sheet music for hymns, sacred songs, Christmas carols and Mary Poppins. Of books there are few. Nixon's Six Crises stands cheek by jowl with the Life Nature Library. There are a number of Mormon works reflecting the Caspers' overwhelming preoccupation with the religion to which they converted (from Congregationalism) just three years ago. There is also a restored Brunswick-Balke-Collender pool table, built about 1885 and presented to Billy a year ago for his 37th birthday. And then there is the kitchen.
Since everyone in the Casper home (save the cook) is on a modified version of Billy's anti-allergy diet, all eyes are turned constantly toward the refrigerator. Mounted on the door are two mottoes. The topmost reads: "Discipline easily shades into courage, responsibility, devotion, faith, steadfastness and serenity." Beneath it, as if to ease the conscience of an errant midnight snacker, another (titled "Growth") advises: "To have failed is to have striven. To have striven is to have grown." Those growing in the Casper domicile—hopefully more in spirit than in girth—include Billy's wife Shirley, 34, daughter Linda, 14, sons Billy, 12, and Bobby, 8, plus three infants adopted by the Caspers over the past year. Byron Randolph Casper, 1½, named for Byron Nelson and Dr. Theron Randolph, Billy's allergist, is a husky hell raiser, even in Dr. Denton's and a playpen. Judy and Jenny, 14-month-old twins who have adapted to the Casper competitiveness by tugging at one another's ears and hair, are as pretty a pair of living dolls as can be found outside an Ivory soap commercial. Also resident are a pair of young family helpers. Anne Moffett, 24, is a winsome, black-haired girl from Belfast, Northern Ireland, a Mormon convert who met the Caspers three years ago while Billy was competing in the Piccadilly World Match Play championship in England. "At first I was afraid of Brother Casper," she recalls. "So dour and quiet he was. But now I can see his great strength of soul." Jerry Elwell, 23, of Ontario, Calif., was serving his Mormon missionary duty near London when Casper met him. An aspiring golfer, Jerry introduced himself and later, when he developed a mysterious allergy similar to Billy's, was invited to live with the Caspers as a boy-around-the-house. A tall, lean, likable young man, Jerry studies at San Diego State and plays on the golf team there. Much to Shirley Casper's matchmaking pleasure, Jerry and Anne were married three weeks ago.
The daily routine at the Casper home is an odd blend of discipline and delight—the one enhancing the other. Up at first light, the family gathers together to pray for half an hour, leadership of the prayer rotating from one member of the circle to another each day. Then come chores: young Billy feeds the two horses, three dogs (a poodle, a golden retriever and a German shepherd) and uncounted cats (there would appear to be at least five, though to an outsider's eye the same striped tabby may have been viewed twice). Bobby empties the wastebaskets and feeds the fish, guinea pigs, rabbits and the white rat. Like most 8-year-olds, he is psychologically unsuited to chores, and occasionally can be found in the dawning light, surrounded by his unemptied wastepaper baskets, molding pottery clay on the side porch or shooting a quick and precocious stick of pool in the recreation room. On such occasions he becomes the subject of somewhat acid prayers at the breakfast table, beseeching the Heavenly Father to help young Bobby "straighten up and fly right."
Breakfast on the diet can range from oat muffins or rice pancakes to lamb chops or fillet of sole with arrowroot, all washed down with a hearty tumbler of water. Eggs are a rare treat, as is milk—except for the infants.
With the kids off to school, the womenfolk go about their household duties or off to one or another Mormon meeting, while Casper busies himself "recharging his batteries." If he takes a three-week layoff from the tour, he never touches a club until the week before he is to resume play. Much of the time is taken up with his many collateral business duties. His business manager, Ed Barner of Uni-Managers Inc., a Los Angeles-based firm that specializes in handling the fortunes of entertainers and athletes, has put Billy into cooperative alliance with Wilson Sporting Goods, Chrysler Corporation (hence the two big "loaners" that adorn his driveway) and a veritable shopping arcade of sportswear companies. As a result of these endorsements and a judiciously selected stock portfolio, Casper each year earns more than twice as much as his annual golf winnings. But business, like so many other things, bores Billy.
"When you come right down to it," he says, "there are only four interests in my life: religion, family, golf and fishing, in that order. And actually, the first two are sides of the same coin." Mormonism is a family-oriented religion, and most of the Caspers' social life takes place within the confines of his home, or at the outside, the parameters of his "stake," or diocese.
Billy says that his own broken family life had much to do with his intense feelings of family responsibility today. Born in San Diego, he was moved to Silver City, N. Mex. at the age of 4. His grandfather, William Adolph Casper, had a ranch there, raising beef cattle and mixed cash crops, and it was in one of these pastures, using old clubs found in an attic, that 4½-year-old Billy took his first swings at a golf ball. Billy's father was a drifter who worked mining and lumber camps. When Billy was 6, his folks moved back to San Diego, and when he was 12 they split up, Billy and his dad returning to New Mexico and then on to the High Sierras of California for a year.
"It was a Huck Finn sort of existence," Casper recalls. "My pa worked for the Boyles Bros. Drilling Co., up above Bishop, and I dropped out of school. I spent the winters hunting rabbits and deer from snowshoes, and in the summer I caught rainbows. My father was the kind of guy who did just enough to get along." Today his father works with a mining company in Kentucky, his mother for the telephone company in Buena Park, Calif. Back in Chula Vista as a teen-ager, Billy returned to school. He never was much of a scholar, but he played every position on the high school baseball team except pitcher and catcher and captained the golf team in both his junior and senior years.
"I was always fat, but it never held me back in sports," Casper says. Casper's great strength as an athlete is in his phenomenal eye-hand coordination, a skill that serves as the key to success in such disparate sports as tennis and baseball, shooting pool and fishing. "Both pool and fishing help my golf game," Billy says. "In each of them you have to keep the hands and fingertips highly sensitive, just as in iron shots and putting."
Casper is not only a sensitive pool player, he is a fierce one to boot, a sort of California Fats who burns up the table with swiftly determined bank shots that rarely miss. Shooting against his high school pals at Chub's Club in Chula Vista, Billy won enough Cokes and malts to keep his fat boy's figure. He also won the heart of Shirley Franklin, though they didn't marry until he was 21 and in the Navy. Casper had received a golf scholarship to Notre Dame but couldn't stand "either the cold weather or the courses." He quit at the end of one semester, and since the Korean war was under way, he volunteered for a four-year stint in the Navy. "I was a seaman in Special Services for the whole hitch," he says with a Catch 22 gleam in his eye. "I could have made petty officer, but they only would have transferred me then." And Casper had no desire to be transferred. He served out his time in the San Diego area, working part time in golf shops on courses at North Island, Point Loma and Imperial Beach. Today he cares deeply about the troops in Vietnam—he has toured the Far East three years in a row, giving golf exhibitions and instruction from Dalat and Danang to the big air bases at Udorn and Korat in Thailand—and he feels that the U.S. "should just get in there and win it quick." And there it is again, a humanist and a hawk, just another Casperian contradiction.
Billy has no hang-ups over the contradictions in his life. "I'm a man in the process of becoming," he says, somewhat dolefully. "I don't know what I'll finally become, but I'm trying. When I was in high school, I knew I'd make it as a professional golfer, and, of course, I have, though there were plenty who said I'd never do it. I believe very strongly, I don't know, maybe even fanatically, in the concept of free agency. At every moment there is an infinity of choices available, and each man is free—totally free—to choose whichever he pleases. Some are good and some are bad. He has only himself to fight in choosing the good over the bad.
"In a way, golf is the ultimate free agent's game. You come up to the ball and the land lies so, and the wind blows so, and your eye tells you that the range is such and such to the flag. Then you begin the battle. Each muscle, down to the thinnest little filament in your fingers, must work in perfect harmony, under the control of a mind clear of self-doubt. If you start to think: I can't do it,' or even worse, 'What'll the gallery think if I muck it up?'—well, then you're dead."
In the light of all that, it isn't surprising that the Fishing Billy is as serious as the Golfing Billy or that watching the first can help instruct one about the second. The day before we flew down to Cabo San Lucas, at the terminal end of Baja, Casper spent the better part of the afternoon in the musty back storeroom of a San Diego tackle shop tying 9-foot monofilament leaders. The shop is owned by Milt Kraft, an oldtime casting champion who golfs now and then with Billy at the San Diego Country Club. A sun-mottled, garrulous geezer, Kraft is an exacting master when it comes to knot tying. "Don't try to cinch that up tight without spitting on it," he snarled at Billy, who was bending a stainless-steel hook to the bitter end of a leader. Billy dutifully spat, and sure enough the knot slid easily into place. As Casper tied and tied again, Kraft fed him a continuous stream of fishing advice: when a marlin hits, let him run with the bait until all the other lines are in before you hit him; use the leverage of the back rather than the biceps in fighting any big-game fish; if your forearms get tired, cock the index finger of your fighting hand over the top of the rod butt and you'll use a totally different set of forearm muscles. Billy took all of the advice in with a series of noncommital grunts, but when the fish started hitting he followed Kraft's instructions to the letter.
We flew to the Cape in a twin-engine Travel Air piloted by Dr. Persky. Dr. Franklin came directly to the El Cajon airport from early-morning surgery, and as we angled down over the empty sierra of Baja, the pediatrician and the obstetrician joked ghoulishly about blood under the fingernails. Billy didn't laugh.
As soon as we were in our rooms at the Hotel Cabo San Lucas, Casper grabbed an ultralight rod and a plastic bag full of cut bait and headed for the rocky beach. It was late afternoon, and by sundown Billy had cranked in two fat cabrillo, ugly but delectable members of the grouper family. They made a delicious dinner.
We were out on the blue water early the next morning, the Martian's twin 450-hp Caterpillar diesels kicking up a milky wake on which the frozen flying-fish baits skipped. Fully 15 marlin rose to look the baits over, yet only two hooked up. One of them was Casper's, a 120-pound youngster that fought well before coming to gaff. One more marlin was hooked late in the afternoon, and shortly thereafter Billy snapped a blue and silver Knucklehead lure on one of his hand-tied leaders. "This little kid is supposed to be dynamite on dolphin," he said. "I'll just catch us some dinner." Half an hour later he was cranking in a 10-pound hen dolphin. As the gaffed fish flashed its life away in a burst of gold and blue, Billy grinned hugely and extolled the culinary virtues of mahimahi. "Guess I'm just a meat fisherman at heart," he said.
The next day Casper would boat his second marlin of the trip—his "double eagle." That night, though, after Billy's dolphin fillets had been polished off, the talk returned to Casper's favorite subject: the clash between free will and obedience. His church, he said, demanded total adherence to the law of the land. Everybody jumped on him at once. Free agency and blind obedience were mutually contradictory, we argued. What, for example, if Billy had been a German during the Nazi period? His ancestors, after all, were German émigrés to the U.S. What if his wife had been, say, a Jewish convert to Mormonism, and what if the SS had come for her and his kids? Billy stared up at the gaudy stars. "I'd have turned them over," he said finally, as though we had been testing him and now he was testing us.
I thought at this point of the strange phenomenon of Billy Casper's many faces. It is difficult to recognize the man three times running in the same tournament. His face changes like that of a rock being pushed uphill. Fat and sullen, lean and bemused, plump and sanctimonious, drawn and happy, cheeky and contemptuous, hardy and tempestuous. Is that Billy? Oh, yeah.
The following afternoon, before we flew back north toward California and the golf wars, Casper took me aside. He was wearing a new face; grizzled and sunburned and slightly stunned (or maybe that's just how he looks when he's thinking hard). "About free agency and obedience," he said, staring out across the blanched rocks and stunted palms toward the Sea of Cortez. "I've decided I wouldn't obey the SS."
And is that Billy, too? Oh, yeah.