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Billy Casper: Life's circle, and the taste of lima beans

Published: Monday, April 9 2012 12:22 a.m. MDT

Billy Casper, top row, right, as a junior golfer in San Diego. Rival Gene Littler is on the bottom row, second from left.

Associated Press Photo, courtesy Casper family archives

Second 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. Read the first excerpt: Billy Casper tells of golf, fishing, Mormons

One day while we were talking at his home in Springville, the conversation turned to Billy Casper's favorite foods. "I've always liked the taste of lima beans," he said and then proceeded to talk about why. His explanation can be found in this excerpt, which describes Billy's earliest roots and, between the lines, tells a lot about where the enormous drive and self-reliance that characterized his golf career and have fueled his life come from.

The first golf club I ever hit was a 5-iron in Silver City, N.M. I was 4 years old. I don't remember how far the ball went, but I remember for sure the club was a 5-iron. Because that's the club my dad hit.

He had cut down another club for me to use because I was so short. But I would have none of it. I cried, kicked and generally pitched a fit until he let me use the same one he was using. I'm sure a therapist would have a fine time interpreting what all that meant, but the only therapy I was interested in was that 5-iron.

I played my first golf course the same day I hit the 5-iron. It was a family-owned course. My father, William Earl Casper, the man for whom I am named, laid it out with his brother Virgil in a cow pasture on the family farm. The Casper Country Club consisted of three holes carved out of sun-baked dirt and clumps of cheat grass situated just down the road from the clubhouse, aka my grandfather's farmhouse.

Exactly why and how my dad and Virgil got interested in golf enough to build their own course is a story lost in time. They never explained and I never asked. I wish I had. They weren't professionals. They never had any instruction. Probably it had something to do with the Great Depression, a time when people made a lot of things at home because they couldn't afford them otherwise.

It could be they were inspired by Bobby Jones, who in 1930, the year before I was born, won the original Grand Slam of the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, British Open and British Amateur all in the same year and was given his own ticker-tape parade down New York City's Fifth Avenue. It wasn't long after that that my dad and his brother built their course in the pasture.

They used what was available. In the Southwest they have red ants, so they dug up the anthills, got rid of the ants, and spread the fine sand to make the greens. They buried a tomato can for a cup. With the soil that was left they made the tees and then leveled them out with their shovels and rakes.

You'd tee up on clumps of grass. The fairways were just wild grass and pastureland. I can't remember what par was. After they'd finish working on their father's farm, or on someone else's farm, they'd bring out their collection of mismatched golf clubs and see about setting another course record. By the time I was 4, I got to take my own rips.

We'd moved to New Mexico when I was 3. The Great Depression definitely had something to do with that. My parents were both originally from the Silver City area but they relocated to San Diego after their teenage wedding in 1930 — my mother, Isabel, was 17 and my dad 19 — to launch out on their own.

I was born the following summer, on June 24, 1931, in the San Diego McCullough Hospital. The economic depression that began on Black Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929, was in full swing by then. After three years of struggle in San Diego, my parents decided it was time to return home.

We moved in with my dad's mother and father. William Adolf Casper was from Hamburg, Germany, and Bertha Vogel Casper was from Bern, Switzerland. They made an interesting pair. He was a huge man, 6-foot-4 and at least 400 pounds. She wasn't quite 5 feet tall and was very petite. Everyone called her "Little Grandma."

My grandfather was a tyrant, a man hard to live with and harder to please. His children kept leaving because they couldn't get along with him, and then they'd come back, like my father did, because they knew he could help them make ends meet.

Adolf was a man of some means. He owned the mercantile store in nearby Central and had a stake in a gold mine. On his farm he raised crops and livestock, both of which could be that night's dinner, an important thing in the 1930s. He cut a wide swath, figuratively and literally, and even as a young child I sensed how fortunate he was to have my grandmother to smooth things over for him. He was the dictator but she ran the show.

How and when my parents met is another lost story. I never asked either one of them for the details and they never volunteered them. They took care of me in the big ways, made sure I had enough to eat and a place to sleep, but from the earliest times I can remember both of them were constantly working. You could not fault their work ethic, but there was never enough energy or inclination for much talking.

They had no more children, I was it. As far back as I can remember, after providing the basics of surviving, they left the rest up to me. When I was 4 and 5 I was alone much of the time. I would walk around my grandfather's farm, just roam for miles. I had two pals, a couple of big farm dogs named Minnie and Blackie, that I spent way more time with than anyone in my family.

When I was 6 we moved back to San Diego. We lived in a small house — a shack, really — in the Sorrento Valley quite a ways north of downtown, where my father found work in a dairy. My mother got a job at the telephone company.

A lot of people were poor during the Depression, including us. One of my clearest early memories of life in San Diego is going in the evening to the lima bean patches in the hills. My parents and I would pick what was left after the farmers had harvested the rest. I thought everybody did that. It was our version of fast food. To this day I love the taste of lima beans.

We moved constantly. We lived in a trailer and hauled it to Mission Valley closer to town so my dad could work at another dairy. It was in an area near the stadium where the Chargers play football now, but back then it was nothing but wide-open fields and the San Diego River. Then we moved again. And again.

I attended five elementary schools in three years. Changing schools is never easy for a kid, and I was a big kid for my age, which is a kind way of saying I was fat. The other kids invariably called me, the new kid, Fatso. It stung when they said it, but I'd get even when they had races. I would outrun everyone in the class. That would always surprise them. I was fat but I was fast. Anything to do with sports always came easy to me, which is more than I can say for my studies. By the time I got to third grade I was so far behind they made me take it over again.

When I was 9 years old and World War II was already going strong in Europe we moved yet again, this time south of downtown San Diego to the community of Chula Vista. When I woke up the first morning I thought we'd gone back to New Mexico. Just up the street was a golf course. I had come full circle.

TOMORROW: Contract on a napkin

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

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