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Billy Casper tells of golf, fishing, Mormons

Published: Sunday, April 8 2012 12:12 a.m. MDT

First of four excerpts from "The Big Three and Me," the autobiography of golf legend and Utah resident Billy Casper, who wrote the book with Deseret News columnist Lee Benson.

My reaction when I was first contacted by Billy Casper in late 2010 to help assist him in writing his life story was one of surprise. This hasn't been written before?

Casper was about to celebrate his 80th birthday. His golf career could hardly be considered "in progress." It had long been entrenched in the record books, where the numbers testify that few who have ever attempted the maddening game — of golf, Winston Churchill once said, "the object is to put a small ball in a small hole with implements ill designed for the purpose" — have made it less maddening.

Casper's 51 career wins are seventh most all time on the PGA Tour, behind a few guys you may have heard of: Snead, Nicklaus, Woods, Hogan, Palmer and Nelson. The total includes a Masters green jacket and two U.S. Opens. He won five Vardon Trophies during his career for lowest stroke average of the year, and more Ryder Cup points than any American ever. In 1970 he became the second man in history to win a million dollars playing golf.

And yet, his life story hadn't been written?

Casper confirmed that was true. Not a word. He'd had a busy life. In addition to winning all those golf tournaments, he and his wife, Shirley, raised 11 children, and in 1966, at the height of his career, they joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Clearly, Casper's priorities were different from those of his better-known contemporary rivals, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, the trio collectively labeled The Big Three and all of whom published their life stories years ago.

In the following excerpt from "The Big Three and Me," Billy talks about first coming to Utah in July 1959 to play in the Utah Open, a month after winning the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. He was lured to the Wasatch Mountains by his friend Don Collett, a former Utahn who enticed Casper with tales of Utah's fine trout fishing. It was on that trip that he met my first boss, Deseret News sports editor Hack Miller, and one thing led to another …

For our fishing trip, Don brought along a local sportswriter, Hack Miller of the Deseret News, Salt Lake's evening newspaper. Hack took us to his favorite spot on the East River, not far from where the Mormon pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Hack — that was his nickname, his real first name was Harold — had written about Don when he was a sports star in the Navy and Don had contacted him in advance about fixing me up with a fishing trip. After I won the U.S. Open, Hack was more than happy to oblige. He had material for his column, and I caught my first fish (but far from my last) in Utah, a German brown trout.

The Utah tournament got a lot of attention. Not only was the U.S. Open champion entered, but so was Bob Rosburg, the runner-up. Rossie got a measure of revenge when he won the tournament. Porky Oliver finished second, one shot behind, and I was another stroke back in third place. I won $850.

A pleasant Mormon woman named Oma Wagstaff was with the ladies golf association and served as Shirley's hostess for the week. She showed us the local sites. We saw This Is the Place monument, walked around Temple Square, which was right next to Hotel Utah, where we stayed, and sat in the hard oak benches in the Tabernacle and heard the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's Thursday night practice. It so happened that Leonard Bernstein, the famous conductor and composer, was there that week, recording a Christmas album with the choir. The music was beautiful. But what impressed us most about our stay in Salt Lake was the friendly, family-oriented atmosphere. Everywhere we went we saw families doing things together. It was that image we wouldn't forget.

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