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

Published: Tuesday, April 3 2012 11:34 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.

"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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