This visit has gone far beyond anything I ever imagined. The warmth everyone has shown has been unbelievable. —Billy Casper
SOUTH BEND, IND.— Long before he became one of the winningest golfers in history, and well before he adopted Utah as his home, Billy Casper launched a college career best described as abbreviated here at the University of Notre Dame.
Taking the train cross-country from his hometown of San Diego, he enrolled as a 19-year-old Notre Dame freshman, and member of the golf team, in the fall of 1950.
He never made it to the spring golf season, however, or to his math and English finals, for that matter. A Midwestern winter and a girl friend back home – Billy's future wife Shirley – conspired to bring about a return train ride to San Diego even before the semester ended.
But once Irish, forever Irish. And after 62 years away, Casper, 81, found that out when he made a detour to the Notre Dame campus this past weekend while en route to the Ryder Cup matches in Chicago – and was welcomed like a conquering hero.
The freshman who left "under the cover of darkness" was feted at the weekly Friday Fighting Irish football luncheon, attended by some 3,000 people, where master of ceremonies Jack Nolan talked about that girl friend/wife that long ago lured Casper away from the Golden Dome. Citing the 51 career victories on the PGATour that came along later, as well as wins at the U.S. Open and Masters, Nolan noted, "he wound up providing for her very well."
On a whirlwind tour of the campus, Casper was welcomed by Father Mark Thesing, chaplain to the Notre Dame football team, had a private meeting with football coach Brian Kelly, shook hands with the University President, Father John I. Jenkins, had his picture taken with Irish athletes past and present, including basketball star Skylar Diggins, hugged the cheerleaders, and sat for two signings of his recently released autobiography, "The Big Three and Me," at the Notre Dame Bookstore.
Because I helped Casper write his life story, I came along for the ride – one that included a return to Zahm Hall, Casper's dormitory back in the day.
A huge green banner hung on the building that read in all caps "HERE COME THE IRISH."
Casper pointed to the second floor. "My room was right there," he said, "between the C and the O."
He recognized the dorm without a problem, but the rest of the campus wasn't so easy. The open fields he recalled from 1950 are now buried under buildings.
"I'd love to see an aerial from then and now," he said, "I can't imagine how different it is from when I came here. The football stadium was on the edge of campus. Now it's right in the middle."
Casper's return was orchestrated by Mike Benson, the president at Southern Utah University and acknowledged golf nut, who learned of the Notre Dame connection when reading Casper's autobiography.
Benson has Notre Dame connections of his own. Several members of his wife Debbie's family have attended the school and in 2011 the SUU president earned an MNA degree – master's of nonprofit administration – from the Notre Dame Mendoza School of Business.
He contacted Bill and Kim Brennan, friends from the business school and Notre Dame administrators, and his friend Jim Parkinson, a co-author of "The Big Three and Me," and got the ball rolling for Casper's return to South Bend.
"I mentioned that when he was in Chicago for the Ryder Cup he'd be close to his old school," said Benson. "He said he only went there for less than a semester. I said it doesn't matter. If you're part of the Notre Dame family they'll embrace you. And that's exactly what happened.."
For the better part of two days, Casper not only got the royal Notre Dame treatment, but no one brought up the plaster he chipped off the wall at Zahm Hall by hitting wedge shots when it was too cold to go outside.
At Notre Dame's Warren Golf Course, head professional John Foster brought together the university's men's and women's golf teams to meet the legendary golfer.
At the football luncheon, Billy was approached by Joe Sassano, a fellow freshman from 1950 who went on to graduate with a P.E. degree in 1954, the same year Billy mustered out of the U.S. Navy – the institution that took him in after Notre Dame (and made sure he stayed the full four years).
Casper joined the pro golf tour in 1955 and while winning more tournaments than all but six men in PGA Tour history also became golf's second millionaire.
Meanwhile, Sassano was amassing his own successful athletic career as a high school football coach who would later be inducted into the national high school Hall of Fame.
Joe remembered the buzz about Billy Casper when the newcomer from San Diego won a start-of-school-year golf tournament on the college golf course that was open to all students, including the golf team.
"He won by 10 shots or more – people were talking about it," said Joe.
Casper only dully remembered the event, which was quickly supplanted by an Indiana cold in November that closed the golf course and drove him indoors.
"I was from San Diego. I thought I was going to freeze," said Casper. "All I did was stay inside and hit wedge shots against the wall."
Sixty-two years later, he can only muse what might have been if he'd stayed in college.
Still, he went on to do Notre Dame proud as it was.
And on the return of the prodigal freshman, Notre Dame did him proud.
"I'm so impressed by everything here," said the athlete who joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he was at the height of his career in 1966, and later relocated to Utah. "We have so much in common, the Catholics and us. Faith is so important, family means so much.
"This visit has gone far beyond anything I ever imagined," he said.. "The warmth everyone has shown has been unbelievable."
To cap it off, the Irish gave Casper and his entourage prime 50-yard-line seats for the Saturday night Notre Dame-Michigan game.
As he settled into his seat, Casper remembered sitting in the same stadium as a student in 1950 and watching North Carolina upset the mighty Irish and end Notre Dame's 32-game winning streak.
This time, he witnessed a 13-6 Notre Dame triumph that extended the Irish winning streak this season to four games in a row.
Time, it seems, has improved everything.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.