It’s no trick for the golf fan to name the game’s half-dozen or so greatest players in its history.
There are Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead, Walter Hagen and Byron Nelson, for openers. You have to put Harry Vardon and Arnold Palmer and Gene Sarazen in there.
And, what about Billy Casper?
Surprise you? It shouldn’t. Check the record. Billy Casper won more tournaments in tougher times than all but five of golf’s best players--an astonishing 51 victories in all, including the U.S. Open, twice, and the Masters.
The interesting part of Billy Casper is, nobody expected that kind of historic performance out of him when he joined the tour--and not many while he was doing it.
Casper came out of the caddie shacks of San Diego, a roly-poly youngster with a putting stroke that was made of butter and a quick slash at the ball that fooled people into thinking he was lucky he could putt.
California, at that time, was awash with promising young players. There were Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi, Gene Littler, to name some, and Casper looked up to them as well as the rest of the state.
I can remember once at a Phoenix Open in ’57 when Casper came running into the press tent to announce proudly that his fellow San Diegan, Gene Littler, had just chipped in a hole. And Billy was enraptured.
“He doesn’t know how well he plays this game,” he enthused.
Two days later, guess who had won the Phoenix Open? If anyone didn’t know how well he played the game, it was Billy Casper.
“Aw,” he used to scoff. “I just chop at the ball like a butcher cutting meat.”
Not true. Billy Casper had all the shots. He could lift an eight-iron over a 90-foot eucalyptus tree on demand. He had a short game that was right out of Lourdes. He could invent shots. He played imaginatively. He had shots that came from “Alice in Wonderland.”
Nobody was paying much attention, though. The focus was on Arnold Palmer, who was busy winning 61 tournaments. But Casper went quietly around, soaking up tournaments at the rate of four to six a year. He won one or more tournaments for 18 straight years on the tour.
In 1959, he won the National Open at Winged Foot with no less than Ben Hogan and Sam Snead in the field, as well as a teen-aged Jack Nicklaus. In fact, Casper spanned the eras from Hogan-Snead to Palmer-Nicklaus and he was always the Third Man. No worse.
He won a majority of his 51 tournaments at a time when the tour was becoming as hotly competitive as a boarding-house dinner, when the winner of the week began to be the name of the game.
Billy was more than consistent, he was monotonous. He once went more than 100 tournaments without missing the cut. He almost never had a bad round. He seldom had a bad hole.
Still, when he beat Palmer for the U.S. Open in San Francisco in 1966, it was widely regarded as a national tragedy. Palmer was the most popular mythical figure since the Lone Ranger. But overlooked was the fact that Billy Casper was not lucking into his first or second tour victory, he was winning his 22nd, and, as a matter of fact, his second Open.
In short, Billy could play. A bizarre diet he went on once to combat allergies overshadowed his links prowess and netted him more publicity as a diner than a golfer. The disability dictated that he eat, of all things, buffalo meat. Also bear and moose.
He had the same diet as Hiawatha and he became known as Buffalo Billy at a time when he was entitled to be known as Birdie Billy.
The wags had a field day. “Does it have to be shot by a bow and arrow off a pinto horse?”
They also wondered whether the wall trophies in hunting lodges had to be hidden from view whenever Billy got hungry.
Billy went along with the gag and put buffalo heads on his Christmas gifts, but if he had won any more tournaments, the buffalo might have replaced the cow on country club menus by the end of the year. Billy is one of 50 pros down here at the majestic Vintage Country Club for the Vintage Chrysler Invitational for the seniors this week at Indian Wells. He is, as always, the one to beat.
Some people were surprised a couple of months ago when Billy was one of the four players chosen for the Senior Skins tournament in Hawaii. The others were the redoubtable Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, America’s team, and Chi Chi Rodriguez, Cantinflas with a nine-iron.
But Billy Casper belongs in any company of golfers ever. Only last week, at 57, he became the second-oldest player ever to make the cut in a regular tour tournament. He can still play. He always could. He could make any foursome in the hallowed history of the game.
You could always spot Billy. He was the one with the seven-foot putt.