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.

We returned in 1960 for the Utah Open when it was again part of the PGA Tour. Billy Johnston, a tour regular who had grown up in Utah, won that year at the Salt Lake Country Club, Art Wall finished second and Ken Venturi third. I tied with Don Collett for 19th place. But I caught a mess of trout on a fishing trip Hack Miller lined up before the tournament to the Gros Ventre River in Jackson, Wyo. — which may not have been the best way to prepare for the golf tournament.

I played again in the Utah Open in 1963, finished fourth, and Hack and I went fishing again. We became fishing buddies. I'd see him at the Masters and other tour events he covered for the Deseret News. He'd ask me about golf, and I'd ask him about trout fishing.

Now and then Shirley would ask Hack what the Mormons believed. In February 1965 the topic came up when we were all in the car driving back from a banquet sponsored by the San Diego Golf Association that honored junior golf. A number of players who had come up through the ranks were invited, Gene Littler and myself, Mickey Wright, Phil Rodgers, Chuck Courtney and others.

Hack served in the National Guard and was coincidentally in San Diego on a military assignment at the amphibious base in Coronado that week, so we invited him to go with us to the program. On the car ride back, the entire family — Linda was 10, Billy 8 and Bobby 5 — was a captive audience when Shirley asked Hack another of her Mormon questions. He took a big sigh, like a man entering a sand trap with a buried lie, knowing what he has to do but not sure at all how it's going to turn out, and laid out the whole Mormon story for us. He later said he'd been dancing around that speech for six years and finally decided to do his duty and give it.

For the next 20 minutes he was the only one to speak. He told the story of the Latter-day Saints from start to finish. He talked about Joseph Smith seeing a vision of the Father and the Son when he was a 14-year-old farm boy in upstate New York, about how he was directed to gold plates buried in a nearby mountain that contained holy scripture from ancient remnants of the House of Israel who lived in the Americas, and about Joseph Smith translating those gold plates into the Book of Mormon. He told about God restoring the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ through Joseph Smith and of the succession of prophets who continued to lead the church.

Hack finished just as we pulled into the driveway. Billy and Bobby, seeing their escape, opened the door and bolted for the house, but Linda and Shirley stayed seated a moment, absorbing what they'd just heard. Hack apologized if he'd talked too much. I just sat there. I don't remember much of what he said before he left, or that I said a word at all in response.

The golf season took over after that, interrupted only by my occasional fishing breaks to the Coronado Islands. We didn't see Hack again until the Sahara Open in October in Las Vegas, where we had dinner at the Flamingo Hotel and Barbara Miller gave Shirley a copy of "Meet the Mormons" in the casino. Hack said the book was especially for me, because it was full of pictures and I didn't read books.

I finished the season two weeks later in early November at the Hawaiian Open, the first time the PGA Tour had stopped there in 17 years. One afternoon, Shirley and I went to the north side of Oahu and visited the Polynesian Cultural Center, which is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We sat on the steps of the nearby Mormon temple and I asked my friend Wally Dill to take a picture of us, joking that it was as close as we'd ever get to being Mormons.

But wherever we went it seemed we couldn't avoid something associated with the church and its members. Soon after we returned to San Diego, Shirley was invited to a political function where George Romney (Mitt's father), the governor of Michigan who would later run for president, and his wife, Lenore, were invited guests. The Romneys captivated Shirley with their poise, style and candor — and they were Mormon. Afterward she asked Cliff Wallace, a San Diego lawyer whom she knew to be some sort of local Mormon leader (he was a stake president, in charge of several congregations known as wards), if he might have the phone number for the full-time missionaries.

You do not have to ask a Mormon such a thing twice.

Tomorrow: Golf in a New Mexico pasture.

"The Big Three and Me" is available at www.billycasper.com and Deseret Book. Email: benson@desnews.com

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