Billy Casper, a two-time U.S. Open champion, 1983 U.S. Senior Open champion and 1978 World Golf Hall of Fame inductee, died on Feb. 7 at the age of 83. Casper had been ailing from a heart condition.
Long considered one of the preeminent putters of his era, Casper was one of golf’s great champions during an era dominated by legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. A San Diego, Calif., native, Casper registered 51 PGA Tour victories, good for seventh on the all-time list. He recorded at least one Tour victory from 1956-1971, a streak only bettered by Nicklaus and Palmer, who had at least one win over 17 consecutive seasons. Casper posted 27 Tour victories from 1964-1970, two more than Nicklaus and six more than Palmer and Player combined.
Born on June 24, 1931, in San Diego, Casper first began playing the game at age 5. He later caddied at San Diego Country Club at the age of 11. When he was 15, he met the legendary Ben Hogan at San Diego C.C. and was inspired to follow his career path.
He eventually landed a golf scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, where he played for one semester, but Casper returned to Southern California to marry his wife, Shirley, in 1952. Before turning pro in 1954, Casper often competed in amateur events against another future U.S. Open champion: Gene Littler.
Once he joined the professional ranks, it didn’t take Casper long to taste victory. He earned his first pro win at the 1956 Labatt Open in Canada.
But his breakthrough came in the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., where Casper remarkably mastered the highly challenging green complexes of the West Course, totaling just 114 putts over the 72 holes. He had 31 one-putts and only one three-putt. At the long and difficult par-3 third hole, Casper chose to lay up all four rounds and made par each time.
Entering the final round, Casper built a three-stroke lead over four-time champion Hogan. Hogan, however, carded a 76 and finished eighth. But Bob Rosburg, who would win the PGA Championship later that year, made a late charge. He holed out from a greenside bunker on No. 11 for a birdie and converted a 50-foot birdie putt on No. 12 to pull into a tie. That’s where the rally ended. He three-putted the 13th hole for a costly bogey then failed to birdie the 72nd hole, giving Casper a one-shot victory.
“Billy Casper was one of the great players of his era,” said USGA President Tom O’Toole Jr. “His U.S. Open victories at Winged Foot and Olympic provided some of the most iconic moments in the championship’s history. This is a great loss for the golf community. Our thoughts and prayers are with Shirley and the entire Casper family.”
Seven years later at The Olympic Club, in San Francisco, it was Casper who made the final-round charge, with a little help from Palmer. Palmer led by seven strokes entering the inward nine, only to see the advantage slip away. Palmer bogeyed Nos. 10, 13 and 15, where Casper birdied to bring the lead down to three strokes. Another birdie-bogey swing on the 16th hole and a Palmer bogey on No. 17 put the two stalwarts in a tie. Both made par on the 72nd hole to set up an 18-hole playoff.
Palmer charged early, only to see his fortunes change on the inward nine with bogeys on Nos. 14 and 15, and a double-bogey 7 on the par-5 16th. Casper, who registered 33 one-putts over the 90 holes against just one three-putt, carded a 1-under 69 for a four-stroke win.
In a 2011 interview for the U.S. Open Championship program, Casper said the 1966 victory was his greatest U.S. Open memory.
“I never thought I could win it until I birdied the 15th hole [in the final round],” he recalled. “The putt was about 25 to 30 feet. It had a nice break from left to right.
“I enjoyed both of the courses I won. I think it was the greens. They were small and they were the old-style golf courses. Winged Foot, you really had to hit good shots and you had to putt well. The Olympic Club was very similar. Both of them are great tests of golf.”
Of his 19 U.S. Open appearances, Casper posted four top-five and six top-10 finishes.
Casper earned his third major championship in the 1970 Masters, beating fellow San Diego native and longtime rival Littler in a playoff.
In 1981, Casper joined the Senior Tour (now Champions Tour) and he posted nine victories from 1982-89, including the 1983 U.S. Senior Open at Hazeltine National Golf Club, in Chaska, Minn., in a playoff over Rod Funseth, and the 1988 Senior Players Championship. Two years earlier, he lost to Palmer in a three-way playoff – along with Bob Stone – in the U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills Country Club in suburban Detroit. During his PGA Tour career, Casper competed on eight USA Ryder Cup Teams (biennially from 1961-75) and captained the 1979 team. He also owns the most points scored by an American player. He was a five-time recipient of the Vardon Trophy, which is awarded for the lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour, and he twice led the PGA Tour money list (1966 and 1968). He was named the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year in 1966 and 1970.
Away from golf, family was important to Casper, who became a devout Mormon in his early 30s and gave 10 percent of his winnings to the church. He and Shirley had 11 children, six of whom were adopted. His charity work centered on helping children, including an annual event at San Diego Country C.C. for Billy’s Kids.
Casper also designed a number of golf courses and operated numerous golf courses via his golf management company: Billy Casper Golf. In 1972, he had a cameo role in the Walt Disney film “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t.”
Casper is survived by his wife, Shirley, 11 children, 34 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. One of his grandsons, Mason Casper, is a formidable golfer who competed on the Utah Valley University golf team and qualified for the U.S. Amateur Public Links and U.S. Mid-Amateur championships.
David Shefter is the USGA’s senior writer. Email him at email@example.com.