Game, not name, making UVU's Mason Casper a force on the golf course
PROVO — When Mason Casper arrived at East Bay Golf Course last Friday morning, the recognition by employees was immediate.
"About time you got here," joked one worker outside the entrance.
Casper laughed and chatted with him for a few minutes, putting off his own work just long enough to catch up with one of his many friends in local golfing circuits. Such friendships weren't hard to establish, not with his father bringing him to golf courses since he was 5.
There's also the not-so-small matter of grandpa. Billy Casper is a golfing legend on both a local and national scale, a Hall-of-Famer mentioned in the same breath as Palmer, Nicklaus and Player.
The Casper name, however, isn't what has the folks at East Bay or Utah Valley University golf coach Chris Curran smiling whenever they see him. It's his game, one that punched him an at-large bid to the NCAA Regionals, which begins Thursday at Washington State's Palouse Ridge Golf Club.
It's the second year in a row Casper has qualified, with last season marking the first time a UVU golfer has done so.
"Last year it was great just to be there," Casper said. "This year my goal is to advance. My perspective is a little different going back for a second time."
Curran made the head coaching switch from women's to men's golf in the fall of 2010 after former men's coach Clark Rustand stepped down. On his way out, Rustand left Curran a lead on a potential walk-on.
"There's this kid, Mason Casper. I think he could be pretty good. You might want to take a look at him," Curran recalled of his conversation with Rustand.
Curious, Curran contacted Casper and asked for his resume. The response was underwhelming.
"I haven't been playing a whole lot of golf recently," Casper admitted at the time. "I don't really have a resume to give you."
Casper, it turned out, had lost some of his touch with the sport after a two-year LDS Church mission, followed by subpar schoolwork that left him ineligible to play for the universities that had first recruited him. The situation left him in a one-year limbo while he went to school and earned his athletic eligibility via college residency.
Now free of the red tape but bereft of recent experience, Casper made his case to Curran anyway.
"He came and sat in my office and said 'I want to be on the team,'" Curran recalled. "'I know I can prove that I'm worthy of a spot,' you know, that kind of thing. Every kid that walks in your office says that."
Curran admitted that Casper's passion didn't go unnoticed, but even that only earned him a semester-long "tryout."
"We'll give you a shot," Curran told Casper. "Then we'll re-evaluate at the end of the semester."
The former Springville High standout understood.
"I had some decent finishes [despite] not playing very often. Probably wasn't much for the coach," Casper admitted. "It was kind of a leap of faith for him to take me in and bring me on the team, give me a shot."
Curran was rewarded sooner than he expected. In Casper's first practice, the qualifier for the Pat Hicks Thunderbird Invitational held at St. George, he shot the lowest round on the team.
Once at Pat Hicks, Casper exploded out of the gate with a 5-under-par first round before going on to win medalist honors.
It was his first-ever college tournament.
"I was kind of like, 'Yeah, you've earned your spot,'" Curran said.
Matching Casper's talent with college-level experience became the next step. Mastering the preparation and mental toughness required at the collegiate level, with team rankings and postseason bids at stake, made golf a different game altogether for the late-blooming Casper.
He wrecked the learning curve, finishing his first half-season on the team with three top-five finishes over five tournaments.
"My goal going into every tournament is to win, obviously, but to finish top-10 or top-five is second and third," Casper said. "Just having the goals and having the mindset ... that's just helped me to experience feeling comfortable under those circumstances."
The 2011-12 season saw more progress. Casper and the Wolverines won individual and team honors at The Battle of the Tetons, with Casper shooting in the 60s all three rounds. He logged six additional top-10 finishes that season on his way to being named the America Sky Conference Golfer of the Year.
Casper has done more of the same this season, earning his third career first-place finish, a second conference player of the year award and a second straight trip to the NCAA Regionals.
Curran compares Casper's emergence on the golf course to an actor breaking out in the right show.
"He definitely had the confidence. He kind of just needed the stage," Curran said. "He'd played in all these amateur events, but he needed a bigger stage. For an amateur golfer, college golf is about as big as you can get."
After wrapping up a brief conversation with another course employee, Casper resumed his putting practice at East Bay, the same course where his parents often dropped him off to practice as a kid.
Curran watched while answering questions about the golfer who went from a walk-on to the one he now regards as his "marquee player."
"I think he's one of the best short-to-midrange putters I've ever seen," Curran said. "That's a huge part of the game."
It could have been coincidence or embarrassment from overhearing his coach's praise. It was impossible to tell. Casper missed the next putt. Irritated, he dragged the ball back with his putter, intent on erasing the error, replacing it with a made attempt.
It's that manic work ethic, CurranCasper said, not the family's past in the sport, that has made the Casper surname emerge in golfing circles once again.
"I can't ever discount that I've been born with the blood to play," Casper said. "People would think that I play with my grandpa all the time. My dad taught me the basics of golf and helped me. Apart from that, I've worked my butt off to get better. It's been a lot of time on my part to just practice and get better."
Casper is intent on remembering that lesson. He has a kid of his own now, a 1-year-old son. He might play golf someday. If Casper continues to excel and manages to take his game to the next level, he wants the progress to get there — not the resulting reputation — to be what his son takes with him.
"That's the thing I want my kids to know," Casper said. "A last name and a family reputation can only take you so far. You're the one that has to work and prove yourself. You can't just ride that last name."
Matt Petersen is the Sports Web Editor for DeseretNews.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheMattPetersen.
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