From afar, Billy Casper was always a tough guy to figure, which
in part explains why he remains the best golfer of the modern
age who never got his due.
On the course, his velvet touch and steel will were overlooked
because of his passionless manner. Off it he had a chilly,
imperious manner that didn't square with the reality that he and
his wife had 11 children, six of whom were adopted.
His victory 25 years ago at the Masters isn't remembered as the
crowning achievement in the career of a player who won more PGA
Tour events than anyone except Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Ben
Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson. Rather, he's lumped in
with five other noncharismatic winners from the late 1960s and
early '70s: Gay Brewer, Bob Goalby, George Archer, Charles Coody
and Tommy Aaron.
``I guess people really didn't know what to think about me,''
says Casper, who made his 37th start at Augusta last week, but
missed the cut.
Today, even at close range, Casper remains a mixed bag who
eludes easy labels. At 63 he has a fleshy face anchored by some
all-world jowls, but his narrow, crystalline eyes still have a
lean and hungry look. His voice is the same measured and
sonorous one that always sounded pretentious at trophy
presentations, but when he's among friends, it is often set off
against a startlingly high-pitched giggle.
The giggles were coming in bunches as Casper got on a nostalgic
roll recently in the dining room of the San Diego Country Club
in Chula Vista, Calif. Surrounded by men he has known for
decades, some of whom he caddied for at this very same club half
a century ago, Casper pointed through a picture window to the
area of the 2nd tee. It was there, Casper said, that he and a
motley crew of fellow caddies and golf bums used to hit their
first shots on a cross-country hole that stretched four miles
through Chula Vista to the now defunct Chub's Pool Hall.
``Through the lemon orchards, across the houses, into downtown,
over the library, down the alley, through Chub's backdoor and
off the spittoon,'' said Casper, cackling and clapping his
hands. ``Oh, we had fun. You know, I always have.''
The last phrase was Casper's way of both acknowledging and
refuting his image. Compared with his more heroic rivals, Casper
seemed a sullen doughboy of a singles hitter, a master of the
unmanly art of putting who was all the more annoying because he
would complain when he missed. At the peak of his powers in the
latter half of the '60s, Casper got less attention for his play
than he did for his allergies, his conversion to Mormonism and
his oddball diet of buffalo meat and organically grown
vegetables, which dropped his weight by 50 pounds to 170. What's
more, Casper did the unforgivable--he crushed the confidence of
golf's greatest hero, Arnold Palmer, with an impossible comeback
victory at the 1966 U.S. Open in San Francisco.
All these factors have conspired against a proper appreciation
of Casper's career. He had 51 Tour victories, ranking him sixth
on the alltime list (11 wins ahead of seventh-place Walter Hagen
and Cary Middlecoff). Yet in his prime, Casper was overshadowed
by Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player, who were marketed as the
``Big Three'' by superagent Mark McCormack in the early '60s.
From 1964 to 1970 Casper won more tournaments, 27, than any of
``There should never have been just the Big Three,'' says Johnny
Miller, whom Casper took under his wing in Miller's rookie year,
1969. ``It should've been the Big Four. That was an absolute
Casper won the Vardon Trophy a record five times (a mark he
shares with Lee Trevino) and qualified for a record eight Ryder
Cup teams. Although he insists he never placed an emphasis on
them, Casper won three majors: the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged
Foot, where he put on a textbook exhibition of putting; the 1966
Open at Olympic, where he defeated the faltering Palmer after
trailing in regulation by seven strokes with seven holes to
play; and the 1970 Masters, in which he defeated boyhood rival
Gene Littler in the last 18-hole playoff at Augusta.
Casper is aware that his Masters victory--which he calls the
proudest moment of his career--does not stir the hearts of the
game's historians. He knows that beyond the Billy Casper Grill
Room at the San Diego Country Club, he is not an icon. And while
he is too proud to complain, he does explain.
``I've always liked people,'' he says. ``But when I was on that
golf course, you know, that was my office. And because I was so
concentrated, I didn't think anything about anyone when I was
``I'm not a grouch. No way, shape or form am I a grouch, but I'm
a very disciplined person. So, consequently, a lot of people got
the wrong impression--and a bad impression--of Billy Casper.''
One of Casper's best friends, pro Mike Reid, agrees that what
the public saw was only part of the man. ``Billy has always been
two different people,'' says Reid. ``On the golf course he was
self-oriented, almost Zenlike, the way he was in tune with
himself. But off the course, he is very other-people oriented.
Almost the life of the party.''
Clearly, Casper is not a man who can be definitively captured in
a snapshot. The chapters of his life are marked by drastic
transitions--from rootless kid to military cog, from narrowly
obsessed professional to devout spiritual searcher, from fat to
thin and back again, from comfortable gentleman rancher to
financially devastated investor, from aging pro who'd lost his
game to elder statesman who has never enjoyed playing more. The
only child from a broken marriage now has 11 children. The
player the public considered aloof in his heyday is now a king
of the corporate outing.
``Life's all about taking stock, reevaluating and readjusting,''
says Casper, who recently undertook a new health-and-fitness
regimen designed to make him competitive on the Senior tour once
again. ``Imagine, here I am at 63, and I feel like I'm starting
The person who knows him best--his wife, Shirley--sees
essentially the same person she met 45 years ago at Chula Vista
High. ``I don't think Bill's ever been unhappy with who he
was,'' she says. ``It's just that he's always followed his own
counsel, and he's never been afraid to change. He's an
Casper had to start adapting very early. In grammar school he
was a poor student who hated reading and was called Fatso.
``That was O.K.,'' he says. ``I've always had a thick skin.
Besides, every kid who called me that, I could outrun.''
Casper's father, William Sr., had introduced Billy to golf in a
New Mexico cow pasture when the boy was four years old and,
after moving his wife and son to Chula Vista, had joined the San
Diego Country Club. Casper's parents divorced when he was 12.
For a while he lived with his mother, but when she remarried and
moved to Los Angeles, Billy chose to stay in Chula Vista and
live with relatives and friends. Asked if the experience was
painful, Casper says, ``Sure, but see, I had baseball. I thought
I was going to be a pro baseball player.''
Despite the lack of a stable home or much money, Casper
remembers his youth as happy and unencumbered, with all the
natural riches of burgeoning Southern California at his feet.
``I tried to get in trouble,'' he says, ``but never really did.
I would play pool, or go to Lane Field and watch the Padres in
the Pacific Coast League. Or we might go to the beach in
Tijuana, get a tent, drink beer and surf. I could do what the
hell I wanted when I grew up.''
Because of the $10 a day he could make caddying, Casper
gravitated away from baseball and toward golf. He benefited from
the same San Diego junior golf program that was developing
Littler and future LPGA Hall of Famer Mickey Wright, although
Casper came along more slowly. He had a 10-finger grip that he
didn't change to a Vardon overlap until he took his first and
only lessons at age 16, and he was never much concerned with
``To be honest, I was too lazy to get out there and hit balls,''
says Casper. ``I would chip and putt or play sand shots. That
was the genesis of my short game.''
That short game made him good enough to earn a golf scholarship
to Notre Dame, but Casper quickly found he couldn't handle the
Indiana weather or the scholastic demands of college. He lasted
less than two semesters before coming back to Chula Vista, where
he was reunited with his sweetheart, Shirley Franklin. But the
Korean War was on, and Casper enlisted for a four- year hitch in
the Navy. He was assigned to a special athletic unit in San
Diego and was able to keep his golf game sharp. But he also had
to conform to the strictest rules he had ever known in his life,
and the structure was just what the adapter needed.
``The Navy taught me how to work, how to take orders, and how to
deal with people,'' says Casper. ``It gave me discipline, which
really set up my life for me.''
He and Shirley were married, and Casper turned pro in 1954, with
a year to go on his military commitment. The next year he
obtained a stake from some backers at the San Diego Country
Club, and he and Shirley began traveling the Tour in a house
trailer. ``It never occurred to us that we wouldn't make it,''
Casper earned his first official victory at the 1956 Labatt
Open, which allowed him to pay off his backers, with interest.
Although he was living off his short game, Casper's role model
was Hogan, the master ball striker. Casper was particularly
drawn to Hogan's powers of concentration, and early in his
career he experimented with self-hypnosis.
Casper was one of the first players to develop a robotic preshot
routine in which he trained himself to repeat his motions
exactly from the time he chose a club to the moment he began his
backswing. If he was disturbed during the process, he would put
his club back in the bag and start all over, a habit that didn't
endear him to fans of the day. Shirley believes that her husband
found the routine necessary because he was suffering from an
undiagnosed case of attention deficit disorder, a learning
disability that may have been the source of his difficulties in
school and that also afflicts two of Casper's biological sons.
As the victories piled up, what became clear to his peers was
that Casper was a rare talent. Miller contends that Casper ``has
the greatest pair of hands that God ever gave a human being.
When you shook hands with Billy he'd just give you the tips of
his fingers, like a dead fish. He believed that his hands were
so finely tuned that doing anything with force might mess up his
Casper's most valuable asset, though, was an instinct for the
kill. He can count the number of tournaments he gave away on the
fingers of one hand.
``If I had the lead, I rarely lost the tournament,'' says
Casper. ``I was able to keep control of myself. Totally. I think
it goes back to my early life, my discipline.''
And while he might have appeared on the wimpy side, Casper had a
competitive arrogance that he channeled into the most lethal
needle in big- time golf. In a sport in which failing to say
``nice shot'' can be construed as gamesmanship, Casper was a
champion trash talker.
``I didn't fool around,'' says Casper. He inserted perhaps his
most cold-blooded needle into Palmer on the 72nd hole at
Olympic. Struggling to maintain his composure after the worst
collapse in Open history, Palmer left a 30-footer a terrifying
four feet short. It was a year in which the USGA was using the
continuous putting rule, and Palmer, needing to make the putt to
get into the playoff, asked Casper if he would be stepping in
his line if he putted out. ``Go ahead, Arnold,'' said Casper
evenly. ``You're hot.'' No wonder some consider Palmer's ensuing
hole-out his greatest display of courage.
Shortly before that Open, Casper had become a Mormon, and his
new religion drew some of his attention away from the
competitive sports arena. Indeed, after his victory four years
later at Augusta, Casper gradually lost his edge. He won only
six more times, his final official victory coming in 1975 at New
The years that followed until he joined the Senior tour were the
worst of his golf career. He gained back the weight he had lost
in the 1960s and completely lost his ability to control the
ball. ``I was embarrassed to play,'' says Casper. ``Things were
so bad that when I would read the things I'd accomplished, I'd
think, Did I really do that?'' To make matters worse, he was
faced with financial difficulties resulting from soured
But the adapter adapted, resurrecting his game in time to win
nine times on the Senior tour (the last time in 1989). Casper
also regained his financial footing. He moved back to San Diego
in 1988, and each time he steps through the doors of the San
Diego Country Club he feels a satisfying sense of closure. ``I'm
home,'' he says.
And he will always come back to the Masters. ``To me, Augusta
represents something special,'' says Casper. ``It's our best
tournament because it never stands still; it's always trying to
improve. We all need to do that in our lives.''
The master adapter certainly has. It's why those who have paid
attention will always give him his due.