I looked at the napkin, then at Don, then at Dick and Russ. I knew it wasn't a great contract. I was giving away almost a third of my winnings and I had to pay everything back in a fairly short amount of time. But Dick and Russ were taking a huge risk. They had no collateral other than my golf game, and I knew it was the only way I could go on tour instead of staying in San Diego and making rivets. Before any of us had a chance to think too long and hard, we shook on it.
Dick and Russ took the napkin and gave it to their attorney, who drew up a legal agreement that I signed. They would provide me with a new 28-foot Spartan house trailer, a new 1955 Buick Roadmaster car to pull it, and deposit money in the bank to pay for gas, food, car repairs, anything else I needed, and they would also cover the security deposit.
I had my ticket out of San Diego.
Not everyone thought it was a good idea. Traveling the country and playing golf was a risky way to make a living. Starting out in debt made it that much riskier. Only a handful on tour made more than $15,000 a year — a considerable sum at the time, but a sum considered to be what you needed to clear expenses and break even.
I'd enjoyed success locally, both as an amateur and as a professional, but I hadn't won any national titles as a junior, and some considered my lack of practice time on the range as an indication of a poor work ethic. Besides that, no one looked at me and saw a lean, trim Ben Hogan. I was 5-foot-11 and weighed 215 pounds. I enjoyed hamburgers and milk shakes. Most of the newspaper stories used an adjective like "burly" or "stout" or "husky" to describe me. I was always some variation of "Big-bellied Billy Casper."
In short, there were those who thought I was fat and lazy.
And then there were the inevitable comparisons to Gene Littler. Was there room for two of us from San Diego on tour? Would I always be in his shadow? It was like having a big brother you were never going to measure up to.
Shortly after I'd struck the deal, Bob Hummel, the head pro at San Diego Country Club, said to Don Collett: "You arranged for Billy Casper to go on the tour? He couldn't carry Gene Littler's shoes."
Just before heading out, I played in the final round of the San Diego County Open with Paul Runyan, the head pro at La Jolla Country Club and Littler's longtime mentor. In his younger years, Runyan had been a dominant player on tour. He was the leading money winner in 1934 and won 29 tournaments in his career, including two PGA Championships. He was considered a keen judge of talent and what it took to survive on the pro tour.
After we played together, he was asked what he thought of my chances of making it. Word circled back to me that he said: "I don't know why Casper's going on tour. With his game, he'll starve to death. Why doesn't he go out and get a nice job selling insurance?"
On that note, I was off.
TOMORROW: The King and I
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