Doug Robinson: Billy Casper's untold story unearthed by Lee Benson

Published: Tuesday, April 3 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Billy Casper reacted in this fashion today when he ran a 25-foot putt into the cup on the 11th green for a birdie 3 during his playoff with Arnold Palmer for the U.S. Open title in San Francisco, on June 20, 1966. Two strokes down at the time, Casper pulled even when Palmer bogeyed the hole. (AP Photo)

Anonymous, Associated Press

Every writer knows there are great stories out there just waiting to be discovered or rediscovered and then told. Author Lauren Hillenbrand has done this beautifully, first with "Sea Biscuit" and then with "Unbroken," two stories that had been pretty much lost to history before they were fleshed out by Hillenbrand.

Now Deseret News columnist and author Lee Benson has done the same thing by helping Billy Casper to tell his life story. "The Big Three and Me" tells a story that will make you wonder why it hasn't already been written.

If Billy Casper hasn't quite been lost to history, his place among the stars of professional golf has largely been overlooked and, for that matter, was never fully appreciated even during his days on the PGA Tour.

He happened to arrive on the pro tour at virtually the same time as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, three players who did for golf what Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan did for basketball. Palmer, Nicklaus and Player are considered three of the greatest golfers who ever lived. They became known as The Big Three.

It should have been the Big Four.

You could write a book to explain why Casper wasn't included in golf's holy trinity and the great career that Casper quietly forged. Which is just what Benson did.

"I could argue that he should be ranked among the 12 greatest golfers who ever lived," says Benson. "And yet he is easily one of the most unsung of the legends of the game. An untold legend."

Consider the case for Casper. Between 1962 and 1970, he matched or beat the legendary trio in total tournament victories — Casper 33, Nicklaus 33, Palmer 30, Player 8.

"By that measure he was every bit as good as any of them," says Benson.

It doesn't end there. During his research Benson learned that among the players who have played since 1950 (records were incomplete before that), Casper ranks No.1 for percentage of tournaments in which he finished in the top 25 — Casper 68 percent, Nicklaus 65 percent (Tiger Woods would beat both of them if he retired today).

"That was one thing I discovered that I didn't know that was really illuminating," says Benson.

Casper ranks seventh in all-time tournament victories, with 51. He is No. 2 in percentage of tournaments he entered and won — Nicklaus is No. 1 at 12.3 percent, followed by Casper 9.2 percent, Palmer 8.4 percent (no one else is above 7 percent). He was the PGA's Player of the Year twice.

Casper was piling up victories — from 1964 to 1970 he won more tournaments than any player on the tour (27) — but with little of the notice and acclaim that followed the Big Three.

"I had known his record was much greater than what he got consideration for," says Benson. "But after I really dug into it, I found there were a lot of things that conspired to keep him under appreciated, not the least of which was coming along at the same time as the Big Three. Which is why the book title is apt. I don't know who you could compare him to. He's just that guy who had bad timing as far as notoriety goes."

Palmer, Nicklaus and Player were not only brilliant golfers, but also big personalities with great public personas, while Casper was quieter and more insular. He was also the most unconventional of the top players of his era. He was a bit of a loner (he patterned his game after one of the game's biggest loners and stoics, Ben Hogan). Casper was no Palmer or Lee Trevino. He didn't respond to galleries; he just put his head down and played, which did not endear him to crowds. Neither did his style of play. He was a conservative player, like Hogan, who would lay up rather than take a riskier go-for-it shot. Speaking of unconventional loners, Casper also joined the Mormon Church and moved to Utah at the height of his golf career (1966), and he and his wife Shirley raised 11 children.

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