Remembering Legend Billy Casper and His Northern California Moments
February 9, 2015
During one of his appearances in the Crosby Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Billy Casper didn’t get off to the start he was looking for while playing at Monterey Peninsula Country Club.
Following an opening bogey on his first hole, Casper tapped his putter on some concrete in disgust. As it turned out, the San Diego native ended up breaking the putter, but it hardly slowed him down. The Hall of Famer, who died Saturday at the age of 83, would use his 3-iron as a putter the rest of his round. He’d still card a 71.
It’s a moment in Crosby Pebble Beach National Pro-Am lore, but it’s also been lost among a slew of other great moments.
In a way, that can somewhat define the career of Casper. While he went on to win three majors and 51 times on the PGA Tour, Casper did so in the shadow of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Casper got so lost in the shadow of Nicklaus, Palmer and Player so much that he titled his 2012 biography, ‘The Big Three and Me.’
There’s no doubt though, that Casper is among the best to ever play the game. During his time on the tour, Casper played in 556 tournaments, winning 51 of them for a 9.2% winning percentage.
The only two players that are ahead of Casper? That would be Nicklaus, who had a 12.3% winning percentage (594 events, 73 wins) and Tiger Woods, whose winning percentage is in the low 20’s but does not include his declining years—if he even gets to those years and instead suddenly walks away from the game.
As for Casper’s achievements in Northern California, his resume glows there as well.
It was at the 1966 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club that Casper pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in U.S. Open history, coming from seven back on the back-nine to tie Palmer. A day later, Casper defeated The King in the playoff.
“The way Arnie had been playing on the front, I wanted to finish second. I told Arnie that on the 10th hole, and he said, “I’ll do everything I can to help you,'” recalled Casper in a 2013 interview. “Ended up I picked up seven shots on the greatest player of the time.”
Palmer went 32-39 over the final round. Casper went 36-32 for a 68. Following the final round, Casper had a speaking engagement in nearby Petaluma. He wouldn’t get done with that until 11:30 p.m. After driving back, he’d get in bed around 1:30 a.m.
“A lot of people don’t know that part of the story,” Casper said. “I remember after I won, as we walked off the green I told Arnie I was sorry. I truly was.”
During a span from 1964 to 1970, Casper was even more lethal than Palmer, Nicklaus and Player. In that time frame, he’d win 27 U.S. events, six more than Palmer and Player combined and two more than Nicklaus.
In both 1958 and 1963, he won the Crosby Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
His win at the historic 1958 Crosby—the first Crosby to be televised and held over 72 holes—was fueled by an eagle on the par-4 11th. It was Casper’s first eagle ever on a par-4. In his victory in 1963, Casper finished with the lead at 285, but had to wait and watch as Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus applied pressure. Player missed a 30-foot putt on 18 to tie and Nicklaus, also needing a birdie at 18 to tie, pushed his second shot right.
But it was the one that got away, and other moments that make up the Crosby lore, that Casper remembered best.
On the first playoff hole of the 1968 Crosby, Casper’s second shot landed seven feet from the flag. Johnny Pott took the title however when he chipped in from 26 feet.
“I remember thinking I had two putts to win it. So much for that,” Casper said.
At the 1970 Crosby, meanwhile, Casper entered the final round nine behind the leader. He never got to play when his caddie got the tee times mixed up. “I was at the first tee but had no clubs,” Casper said.
Another year, Casper was in contention playing the 18th hole at Pebble Beach when his shot hit a marshal in the head and ricocheted out of bounds. “That cost me about $2,000 in winnings,” Casper said. “The guy ended up suing me too and won. I had to pay $54 for his doctor bill.”
In another round at MPCC, Casper once took an eight on his very first hole. He’d still end up shooting a 68.
For Casper, it wasn’t just all about the golf though. In 1992, he founded ‘Billy’s Kids’, a youth foundation that has since gone on to raise over $3 million for children. Each year, Casper hosted a ‘Billy’s Kids’ fundraiser tournament in his hometown of San Diego.
“My focus has always been on the youth of America. I believe that these youngsters, the future of our great country, are our most precious commodities,” Casper said.
Billy Casper the player, and Billy Casper the man. They’ll both be missed.