One of the most prolific winners on the PGA Tour, Billy Casper, died of a heart attack at his home in Utah Saturday, February 7th. His son Bob said Billy died quickly and peacefully with his wife of 62 years, Shirley, at his side. Casper passed out in the clubhouse at the Masters in 2014. He had been treated for heart troubles, and had just recovered from a bout of pneumonia over Thanksgiving that kept him hospitalized for over a month. His son added that his father was going to cardio rehab and was doing better until he started to feel badly the last week.
In any other era, Billy Casper might have commanded more attention. “I think it is fair to say that Billy was probably underrated by those who didn’t play against him,” Jack Nicklaus said Saturday night. “Those who did compete against him knew how special he was.”
Casper won 51 times on the PGA Tour, placing him at # 7 on the career win list only behind Sam Snead, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson. His three major championships include the 1966 US Open, one of golf’s most remarkable comebacks. Billy rallied from a 7 shot deficit on the back nine at The Olympic Club in San Francisco to tie Arnold, and then beat him in an 18 hole playoff. Casper also won the 1959 US Open at Winged Foot and the1970 Masters. He was inducted into World Golf Hall of Fame in 1978.
He was somewhat overshadowed by the “Big Three”-Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player, whose rivalry sparked a revival in golf in that era. Part of that was the marketing genius of Mark McCormack at IMG, which Billy originally signed with, but then decided to leave. But he kept winning. From 1962 through 1970, Casper and Nicklaus won 33 times on Tour while Palmer won 30. According to Golf Digest, Casper’s winning percentage of 9.2 trails only Nicklaus at 12% and Woods at 26% of all golfers who played after 1950.
Billy Casper was a short game genius and considered one of the best putters ever in golf. When he prevailed at Winged Foot, he purposely laid up on the par 3, third hole all four rounds and got up and down for par each day. “Billy was a fantastic player, and I don’t think he got the credit he deserved,” Nicklaus went on to say. ” I have said many times that during my career, when I looked at the leaderboard, I wasn’t just looking to see where Palmer, Player or Lee(Trevino) were, I was also checking to see where Billy Casper was. Billy had tremendous confidence. He just believed in himself. You knew when you played against Casper, Billy would not beat himself.”
Casper was born June 24,1931, in San Diego and began caddying at the local country club. He was among the first of the great lineage of golfers in San Diego that included Gene Littler and Mickey Wright. “Gene was so much better than me. I never beat him as a teenager.” Billy told me in an interview a few years ago at the PGA Show. “I had a lot of confidence. I had such a tie with my eyes and my hands. I could look at a telephone pole 40 yards away, take out a 7 iron and hit it 10 times in a row. I had something special, and somehow, I really understood the game, all without having a lot of guidance.”
Casper won his first PGA Tour event in the 1956 Labatt Open over Jimmy Demaret, and then went on to win at least once each season for 16 straight years, a streak only surpassed by Nicklaus and Palmer at 17. He won the PGA Tour money title twice and was Player of the Year in 1966 and 1970. He won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average five times and still holds the American record in the Ryder Cup for most points. He played on 8 teams and captained the 1969 team to victory.
Outside Golf, Billy was devoted to his family. He had 11 children, 6 adopted, and is survived by 71 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In 1962, Casper founded the Billy Casper Youth Foundation and for more than 20 years hosted an annual charity event in San Diego raising money for children.
More important than what Billy Casper gave us inside the ropes, he has been so selfless outside them. He was always steadfast and committed to his family, his Mormon religion, his community, and his unwavering beliefs. When asked how he wanted to be remembered, he said ” I want to be remembered for how I loved my fellow man.”