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Book excerpt: Arnold Palmer could never shake Billy Casper

Published: Tuesday, April 10 2012 10:33 p.m. MDT

Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer after Casper overcame a seven-shot deficit to catch and pass Palmer in the 1966 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. In his just-released autobiography, Casper praises Palmer's sportsmanship in the wake of the defeat. The U.S. Open returns to the Olympic Club this June.

associated press, Usga Photo

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No discussion of Billy Casper's life is complete without a conversation about Arnold Palmer. It was Casper's fate to be coupled with the most popular player the game has ever known. Both joined the PGA Tour in 1955, Arnie six months ahead of Billy, and for years Palmer maintained his lead.

By the time the two were paired for the final two rounds of the 1966 U.S. Open in San Francisco, Casper had won 29 times on tour, far and away the most over the past decade, except for one man: Arnold Palmer, who had won 47 times.

Arnie was King, but he could never quite shake Casper, and on a damp day in June, Casper caught him. Billy was seven strokes behind with nine holes to play. Eight holes later, they were tied. After both parred the final hole, an 18-hole playoff was scheduled for the next day, where Palmer shot 73 and Casper 69 to complete the greatest comeback in major-championship history.

When the Open returns to The Olympic Club this June, Casper has been asked by the USGA to present the trophy to the champion on the same green where he was handed the trophy 46 summers ago.

In today's two excerpts from the book, Casper first talks about Palmer, contrasting their styles. In the second, he praises Palmer's sportsmanship after losing that lead on the back nine in '66, and talks about the Mormon fireside he stopped off at between the end of regulation and the playoff the next day — pre-round behavior that doesn't figure to be replicated any sooner than someone making up seven shots on the final nine of a U.S. Open.

No one ever mistook me for Arnold Palmer, or Arnold Palmer for me. We didn't look alike, we didn't talk alike, we didn't act alike, and we sure didn't play golf alike.

He was East Coast from Pennsylvania; I was West Coast from San Diego. His father was an ever-present force in his life; my father said goodbye when I was 15. Arnie was a riverboat gambler; I wouldn't get on a riverboat. He was forever having to hitch his pants up as he walked down the fairway; I never had that problem.

But probably nothing sums it up better than this: When I won my first U.S. Open in 1959 at Winged Foot, I purposely laid up on the third hole every round for four straight days. The third hole was a par 3. I chipped close, one-putted and made par each round and wound up winning the tournament by a single shot.

When Arnold won his first U.S. Open the following year in 1960 at Cherry Hills, he attempted to drive the first hole every round. The first hole was a par 4. He missed the green for three straight rounds until finally on his last 18 he succeeded. He made birdie and used the momentum to rally from seven shots behind and pass 14 players to win the tournament by two strokes.

Pairing us together in the U.S. Open was like pairing yin and yang.

In one area, however, we were exactly alike, and he knew it and I knew it. When you play golf for a living, you soon realize that there are great talents and there are great competitors and they don't always, or even very often, come in the same package.

Year after year, you'd see players come out on tour with swings that were fundamentally flawless. Their technique was so perfect you wanted to take a picture of it. Your first thought was: Might as well surrender and get it over with. There was no way they could lose with a swing like that.

But the swing was only part of it. You had to be able to execute that swing when it mattered. The swing not only has to be able to hold up under pressure, it has to get better under pressure. The players who stayed the longest, who thrived, couldn't just execute the swing when it mattered; they relished the opportunity to be able to do so. They loved to compete. They loved being in the thick of it on the final few holes. They didn't shy away from the pressure, they yearned for it. Much more than wanting to make a good swing, much more than wanting to post a good score, they wanted to win. That's what they lived for.

That was Arnold. He yearned to compete and he yearned to win. He wanted to win every single time he played. So did I.

Our methods were not at all alike. His game plan was different than mine. He was aggressive; I was conservative. He aimed for pins; I aimed for position.

His personality was different than mine. He thrived on crowd interaction; I tried to shut out the crowd.

And no one ever confused our homemade swings.

But we were after the same thing, and it wasn't to perfect our mechanics or shoot a good score. It was to win.

As impressive as anything Arnold Palmer did in his entire career was the way he handled the press conference after he lost the lead in the final round of regulation, faced with our playoff the next day. Over the years, as I have watched countless heartbreaking losses at sporting events, live and on television, and sometimes seen the victims of those losses skip out on press conferences or give surly one-word responses to the media, I think of Arnold that day at Olympic.

Both of us were ushered into the media room where hundreds of reporters were much more interested in what went wrong than what went right. For almost an hour, they grilled Palmer about this shot and that shot and this decision and that decision. He sat there and took it until the last question was asked.

When it was over, a USGA official asked him if he wanted to exit by a side door so he could avoid the crowds out front. "Naw," he said, "The way I played, I deserve whatever they do to me."

After the postmortem, we went to our separate corners, Arnold to his friends' home in the city, where he and Winnie had a quiet dinner with, among others, Mark and Nancy McCormack; me to a Mormon meetinghouse to give a talk.

Long before I knew I would tie for the lead in the U.S. Open, and be in a lengthy press conference afterward, and that I would be playing another 18 holes the next day, I had agreed to give a Sunday night fireside talk at 7 o'clock in Petaluma, 40 miles north of the city.

A deal's a deal. I changed and drove straight to the church, arriving almost an hour late. The chapel was full. No one had left.

I can remember the length of every putt and exactly what club I hit on every shot that Sunday, but to this day the most I can remember about that fireside is talking about my trip to Vietnam. But I must have said something mildly interesting because it was after 11 p.m. when the meeting ended.

I returned to the Leiningers' home in Greenbrae. I hadn't eaten anything since lunch. Shirley turned on the grill and I had a late, late dinner of pork chops, green beans and salad.

Then I went to bed and slept like a man with nothing to lose.

Meet the authors

This weekend, Billy Casper and Lee Benson will talk about and sign copies of "The Big Three and Me," from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday in Deseret Book's City Creek Center store in downtown Salt Lake City, and from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday in Orem at the Deseret Book University Village store near the University Mall.

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

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