From the Golf Journal Archives - Billy Casper: Man Under Control

May 04, 2012

By Joseph C. Dey, Jr.

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1966 issue of Golf Journal.)

So high do we enshrine our demi-gods of sport that we risk failing to see them as people. Because they make plenty of birdies, or hit home runs, or win at Forest Hills, we automatically credit them with values which they may not have at all. We reward them accordingly.

But Billy Casper is people. He now has a taller pedestal than most in the make-believe world of games-playing because he is the United States Open Champion for the second time – but he is very much a person.

He has had obstacles to surmount, problems to solve, just as have all humans. He has emerged from them as a man in magnificent control of himself.

It was said of a certain major league pitcher that he had plenty of speed but no control. He did not last long. The touchstone of control is the great tester in golf, too. The game demands accuracy throughout a wider range of physical effort than perhaps any other sport – all the way from the all-out smash of a full drive to the delicate touching of a wee putt.

Ben Hogan demonstrated such physical control more convincingly than any other golfer of his generation. But his physical control of club and ball has come from the artistry he developed in unremitting practice. It originated in something within the man, in his own self-control. Did anyone ever see Hogan vent his frustration on a golf course? The picture of his emotional discipline is strikingly clear.

So it is with most successful players, in greater or less degree. With Billy Casper, the quality of self-control is very conspicuous. It shone through all the ups and downs of his fortunes in the 66th Open last month at the Olympic Country Club’s great Lakeside course in San Francisco.

When Casper won the 1959 Open at Winged Foot, it was recorded in the USGA Journal that “He enjoys food but he has declined to endorse tobacco and liquor ads because he doesn’t smoke and seldom drinks.” He was then a good-humored, roundish young man of 27 and 212 pounds.

Casper’s weight today is 185; it has been as low as 175 in recent years – this the result of rather exotic dieting to defeat allergies, dieting that included buffalo and bear meat. One day at the Open his breakfast comprised swordfish and tomatoes. He does not use tobacco, alcohol, coffee or tea.

But Casper’s enormous composure is the product of something deeper than diet. His self-possession he ascribes to the fact that he is himself possessed by religious faith. He and his wife Shirley, who was his high school sweetheart in San Diego, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon). Theirs is an active faith, not nominal.

“It sustained me and kept me going,” said Casper, “even when I was seven strokes behind Arnie Palmer with nine holes to go in the fourth round at Olympic. I kept praying, and I knew that others were doing the same. I was playing for second place, if nothing else. Then, when Arnie slipped, I was fortunately able to enter the door he opened, and we tied. It was somewhat the same way in the playoff.”

Further concrete evidence of Casper’s convictions is his practice of tithing: 10 percent of all his golf winnings go to his Church. His Open prize of $25,000 was augmented by a $1,500 bonus for the playoff; a similar bonus was given to Palmer.

The old lesson is told with fresh clarity in the example of Billy Casper: mastery of a thing begins with mastery of oneself, and in being possessed by something greater than oneself.


The Collapse of Palmer

Explosions of fireworks in many unexpected quarters usually keep the Open wide open until the late stages. Rarely is a two-man duel produced. But such a rarity was this year’s Open at Olympic.

Casper and Palmer were tied for the lead after 36 holes, at 137, three below par, and the automatic draw placed them together in the third round and again in the fourth. They were tied at 278 after 72 holes, and so they had to go an extra round, in which Casper scored 69 to Palmer’s 73.

Chronicles of this Open will always stress how Palmer lost, as much as how Casper won. It was Palmer’s championship until the end of the fourth round was in sight. The surging swing of the tide can best be appreciated in simple statistics: That Palmer lost seven strokes in nine holes and five strokes in the last four holes still strains the credulity of even those who saw it happen. It was all the more staggering because Arnie had been playing so magnificently. Out in 32 in the fourth round, he could have played the last nine in par, or even the last six in par, and scored 274 – and that would have utterly demolished the all-time record of 276 made by Hogan in 1948 on another California course, Riviera in Los Angeles.

At that, Palmer had to make a most courageous par 4 from deep rough off the home fairway to stave off defeat then. He had to get down a slippery second putt of three feet, knowing that Casper had a 17-footer for a bird, which Billy failed to hole on the tilting little 18th green.

These were sad moments for the numberless followers of that wonderful personality we all know as Arnie. But that was not all. The playoff, too, was to mock them.

Arnie took a two-stroke lead in the first nine with a splendid 33, two below par. Suddenly, on the hard 11th, the game was even when Casper holed a 40-footer for a bird 3 and Palmer needed 5.

On 13, another 50-footer by Billy produced a 2, and he was ahead for the first time in the whole tournament. He strengthened his lead by a stroke on each of the next three holes, as the second nine proved Arnie’s undoing for the second straight day. Casper capped his championship with the flourish of a bird 3.

If Olympic was sad for Palmer as he lost control of his strokes two days in a row, it was glorious for Billy Casper. When all odds seemed against him in the face of typical Palmer charges, Casper never once quailed. To the contrary, he played terrific golf with magnificent poise. He did the back nine in 32 and 34 in the fourth round and the playoff.

Billy had four sub-par scores in his five rounds; all the rest of the field together broke par 11 times. The score of 278 at which he and Arnie tied was equal to the second best winning score in the history of the Open, In his three head-to-head rounds with Arnie, Billy was even par at 210; Arnie had 214.

When Casper first won the Open seven years ago, he used 114 putts in the 72 holes at Winged Foot – 30 under par for putting; he three-putted once. At Olympic he used 117 putts and did not three-putt in the four championship rounds. Billy is perhaps the greatest putter in golf.

But to play Olympic under par four times out of five, the greatest of players must have all the other shots, and Billy has them. He is long off the tee – he kept up well with the smashing Palmer – and he is usually quite straight. He is among the fastest and least fussy of players – a joy to behold!

Casper played in the 1953 U.S. Amateur Championship, turned professional the following April, and now, at age 35, has become the second greatest money-winner of all time, his “official” purses totaling $543,248; his other emoluments are considerable. Only Palmer surpasses him in prize-winning; Arnie’s total is $711,300.

But data do not measure the man William Earl Casper, Jr. He is humorous, yet serious, friendly, yet self-possessed; cooperative, yet of independent mind. Golf is fortunate to have such a gentleman as its Open champion and successor to that other grand little gentleman, Gary Player.

A distinction of the Open is its openness. It is sport in the finest sense, for it gives opportunity to any qualified golfer to show what he can do. The field for the championship is mainly determined not by invitation or limited records but by current ability in a series of qualifying events. This year, from a record entry of 2,476, there emerged club professionals and amateurs to share the glories, even if fleetingly, with the razor-sharp touring professionals.

There was first Al Mengert, runner-up in the 1952 U.S. Amateur Championship; he has been prominent in past Opens as a professional and now is settled in a club position in Tacoma, Wash. Al showed the way to the whole field the first day with a sparkling, well-played 67.

Next day there was Rives McBee, age 27, a relatively recent convert from amateurism who is an assistant pro in Midland, Texas. He does not have an approved player’s card for the PGA tour but he shot Olympic in 64. That tied the all-time single-round record for the Open, shared by Lee Mackey (Merion in 1950) and Tommy Jacobs (Congressional in 1964). McBee, a brilliant putter and a fast player, had nine birdies in the 18 holes.

There were the amateurs –18 in the starting field of 151 and six in the 64 who escaped the 36-hole cutoff. Young John Miller led them. This 19-year-old boy was playing his home course and his 70-72-74-74—290 tied him for eighth place in the whole U.S. Open. John was not even sure he would qualify, so he had signed up to caddie just in case. John was U.S. Junior Amateur champion two years ago.

The current U. S. Amateur champion, Bob Murphy, a Florida college student, shared 15th position at 293 with defending champion Gary Player, who, incidentally, had putting troubles until his closing round of 69.

There was also Ben Hogan, in the Open for the first time since 1961 by virtue of a special invitation from the USGA. Hogan’s consummate skill from tee to green was thrilling to the galleries. He finished with a par round of 70 for a total of 291 and 12th place.

This, then, was an Open of unusually interesting personalities and exciting performances. It was remarkable that Casper and Palmer, at 278, finished seven strokes ahead of the next player, Jack Nicklaus. Dave Marr, the Professional Golfers’ Association champion, shared the next position with Tony Lema, former British Open winner.

Thus the cream rose to the top positions, as it would almost surely do over such a course as Olympic, The Open confirmed Olympic’s rank in the very top echelon of American tests of top golfers. It is not excessively long, playing at 6,719 yards, though the total yardage is deceptive when it is realized that two of the par 3s do not exceed 150. But its trees, framing every hole, its lush rough and its smallish greens left little margin for errant shots. Superintendent Alfred Caputa had it in superb condition. Olympic tested every club in the bag – in a typical round Arnold Palmer used all his clubs except a No. 1 iron. Light swirling winds kept the players thinking.

Prize money available for professionals was a record $150,000. Due to the presence of amateurs, the actual awards in the championship amounted to $147,490. This added to $7,800 in the 13 sectional qualifying championships, made the grand total $155,290.

Distance markers were erected at 250 yards on eight holes to give spectators reasonably accurate information about length of drives. This was a departure from USGA practice. The markers were of little or no value to the players, who had the course well diagnosed before the markers were erected.

There were three telecasts by the American Broadcasting Co. – 1½ hours of the third round, two hours of the fourth, and one hour of the playoff. ABC used 17 color cameras – the most ever employed for sports televising.

All the large and small successes of this Open would not have been possible without the splendid and colossal job of work performed by Olympic’s volunteer committees and staff. Some 1,200 persons were involved. At the head of this vast organization was Stanton Haight, a veteran of two other USGA events at Olympic. Golf owes a large debt of gratitude to Mr. Haight and his colleagues.

When Casper first won the Open seven years ago, he used 114 putts in the 72 holes at Winged Foot – 30 under par for putting; he three-putted once. At Olympic he used 117 putts and did not three-putt in the four championship rounds. Billy is perhaps the greatest putter in golf. (USGA Museum)


When all odds seemed against him in the face of typical Palmer charges, Casper never once quailed. To the contrary, he played terrific golf with magnificent poise. He did the back nine in 32 and 34 in the fourth round and the playoff. (USGA Museum)


"I was playing for second place, if nothing else," said Casper. "Then, when Arnie slipped, I was fortunately able to enter the door he opened, and we tied. It was somewhat the same way in the playoff.” (USGA Museum)