Billy Casper's PGA Tour career started with a deal on a napkin

Published: Tuesday, April 10 2012 12:57 a.m. MDT

With backing from two businessmen, Billy Casper embarked on the pro golf tour in 1955 with wife Shirley and infant daughter Linda.

courtesy Casper family archives

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Third 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.

Benson: I've always felt golf, of all professional sports, is by far the fairest when it comes to deciding who can play at its highest levels. There are no long-term contracts, no guaranteed paydays, no minimum salaries for rookies. Then there's the problem of figuring how to make ends meet before you can make ends meet.

The story of how Billy Casper got started involves a soft drink in the clubhouse bar, a land developer, a car dealer, a napkin — and exactly zero agents.

Playing on the PGA Tour in the 1950s wasn't an inexpensive proposition. You couldn't just show up.

There were a number of conditions. First, you had to have three professionals from your PGA section vouch for you by declaring that you were a qualified player and had the game to compete on tour. Second, you needed to submit proof that you had a reserve of at least $5,000 in the bank — indicating that you could pay your expenses and not mar the image of the tour by being a deadbeat. Third, once you were conditionally approved, you had to serve a six-month apprentice period during which time you could play in tournaments but couldn't make any money. If you didn't have a club to sponsor you, you needed to have your own nest egg until you became established.

Shirley and I weren't even close to having enough money to get started. We were still paying off our 1941 Plymouth and we had a baby to feed.

The reality was we had to save some money first. Through the Navy grapevine I heard that Rohr Aircraft, a big San Diego company that made airplane parts, was paying good money for people making rivets on the assembly line. I went to its offices and filled out a job application. I wrote on the application that I would be available as soon as I left the Navy. My plan was to get my seed money for the tour by punching rivets.

One afternoon I started to tell Don Collett about my rivet-making idea. Don, who knew my golf game as well as anyone, held up his hand and stopped me. He said he was sure I could make it on the PGA Tour, and in his opinion I shouldn't delay getting out there.

"I know a couple of fellas," he said.

A few days later Don and I met the "fellas," Dick Haas and Russ Corey, at San Diego Country Club. Dick was a Lincoln-Mercury car dealer in National City, and Russ was a local building contractor. The four of us played a round of golf together. It was more or less an audition.

I shot 2-under 70 and holed a shot out of a bunker. I guess that and Don's talking convinced them I was worth the gamble. After the round we were in the grill, having a Coke, when Russ turned to me and said, "Billy, what's it going to take to put you on the tour?"

I turned to Don, my new business manager, and said, "Well, what's it going to take?"

Don took a napkin and wrote what we figured I'd need to make it: a car, a house trailer and $650 a month for expenses, plus a deposit in the bank to satisfy the PGA's minimum-balance requirement.

Haas and Corey agreed to front the car, the trailer and the money and give me three years to pay it back — an investment that amounted to about $30,000. In the meantime, they would get 30 percent of everything I won.

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

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

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