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

Published: Tuesday, April 3 2012 11:34 p.m. MDT

"He had a knack of doing things that painted him as different and unconventional and not a crowd favorite," says Benson. "The Palmer-Casper comparison was like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Palmer is easily the most popular golfer of all time. He was charismatic."

Casper also won "only" three majors — the 1970 Masters and the 1959 and 1966 U.S. Opens (he finished second in the PGA tournament three times). Nicklaus won 18, Player 9 and Palmer 7. As some golf writers have noted, even Casper's most famous victory — the '66 U.S. Open, in which he rallied from seven shots back over the final nine holes and beat Palmer in a playoff — is known more for Palmer's collapse than Casper's rally.

Then there was Casper's decision to leave agent Mark McCormack, who is billed as the sports world's first super agent. In Casper's words: "I was the idiot who left Mark McCormack."

"Casper admits that it was not one of the brightest things he did," says Benson. "That was shooting himself in the foot. Anyone who stayed with McCormack turned into gold. He revolutionized the sports agent business in terms of what he could get them in endorsements and marketing players. His clients included Palmer, Player and Nicklaus. McCormack coined the phrase 'The Big Three.' And he marketed the heck out of them."

To write the book, Benson interviewed the 80-year-old Casper in the golfer's home in Springville over the course of four months, collecting 60 hours of taped interviews. They begin with his formative years. Casper was raised in San Diego and split time living with his divorced mother and father, but really he grew up at a neighborhood golf course where he worked as a caddy and learned the game. His rise to golf stardom included a tour of duty with the Navy. Like everything else, his was an unconventional path to the PGA Tour.

It wasn't easy — there were plenty of trials along the way, as you will read — but these days Casper is happy and content. This week you will find him at the Masters, where he has been a fixture every year since 1957, the last six as a spectator. Benson, who is at the Masters this week with Casper, reports that the old pro has taken up his usual post, sitting under an umbrella by the first tee, adjacent to the clubhouse, where he soaks it all in and greets a parade of old golfing buddies and fans as they pass by.

It was here a year ago that Casper shared a poignant moment with The Big Three. At Benson's request, Casper asked Nicklaus, Palmer and Player if they would pose for a photo with him and write a foreword for the book. They readily agreed. "Their attitude was, anything you want," says Benson.

An excerpt from the book's foreword says it all: "We (Palmer, Nicklaus, Player) became known as The Big Three ... Inside the ropes, however, we were well aware of something the public at large didn't seem to know or appreciate. There was another player who was winning as often as we were, a player we kept an eye on and worried about just as much, if not more, than each other. His name was Billy Casper. It could have been The Big Four." Signed, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player.

email: drob@desnews.com

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