Because of an ultra-efficient manner of play and a quiet personality that contrasted with his more famous contemporaries, Billy Casper is perhaps the most underrated star in golf history.
Between 1956 and 1975, Casper won 51 times on the PGA TOUR, a figure surpassed by only Snead, Nicklaus, Palmer, Hogan and Nelson. He won two U.S. Opens and a Masters. He was a member of eight Ryder Cup teams, winning more points, 23.5, than any other American player. He won the Vardon Trophy five times, a record matched only by Lee Trevino. He was the PGA TOUR Player of the Year in 1966 and 1970.
"I would chip and putt or play sand shots. That was the genesis of my short game."
In his prime, however, Casper was overshadowed by Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player, who were marketed as The Big Three. But from 1964 to 1970, Casper won 27 U.S. events, six more than Palmer and Player combined, and two more than Nicklaus. Casper, of course, did not lack for respect among his peers. “Billy was a killer on the golf course,” said Dave Marr. “He just gave you this terrible feeling he was never going to make a mistake, and then of course he’d drive that stake through your heart with that putter. It was a very efficient operation.” Said Lee Trevino, “When I came up, I focused on Casper. I figured he was twice as good as me, so I watched how he practiced and decided I would practice three times as much as him.”
Casper was born June 24, 1931, in San Diego, Calif., where sports quickly became the center of his life. “When I was in first grade, the kids called me Fatso,” he remembered. “It hurt, but the way I overcame it was to outrun every kid in the class. So I developed a thick skin, and athletics became my way of performing and being accepted.” He caddied at the San Diego C.C. and came out of the same junior golf environment that also produced Gene Littler and Mickey Wright. “I didn’t really worry about form, and to be honest, I was too lazy to go out there and hit the ball,” Casper said. “I would chip and putt or play sand shots. That was the genesis of my short game.”
Among the game’s greatest winners, Casper was the greatest putter. He used a pigeon-toed stance and gave the ball a brisk, wristy pop. Casper’s self-taught swing was distinctive for the way his right foot would slide through impact. Off the tee, it produced a fade that was always in play and approaches that inevitably finished pin high. Whatever shot Casper was playing it was executed with supreme touch and feel. “Billy has the greatest pair of hands God ever gave a human being,” contends Johnny Miller.
He was also a tremendous competitor. The most enduring memory for those who watched and competed against him in his prime is the serene assurance of the supremely confident athlete who knew he would be at his best when it mattered most. The greatest example of this relentless quality was at the 1966 U.S. Open where he made up seven strokes on the final nine to tie Arnold Palmer and then defeated him in a playoff the next day.
But Casper seemed a ghostly figure. At the peak of his powers, Casper got more attention for his allergies, his conversion to Mormonism, his 11 children (six of them adopted) and his offbeat diet of buffalo meat and organically grown vegetables. At first he was hefty and later lost 70 pounds to drop to 170. When he played, it seemed as if he was in a trance. “It came from my feelings for Hogan,” said Casper, who indeed experimented with self-hypnosis. “He seemed to be in this sort of hypnotic state, and I wanted to be just as focused.” The public would come to know very little of Billy Casper, making him arguably the best modern golfer who never received his due.