Billy Casper passes away at age 83
February 07, 2015
By Laury Livsey, PGATOUR.COM
- Billy Casper, a 51-time PGA TOUR winner passed away Saturday at age 83. (Michael Cohen/Getty Images)
Billy Casper, one of the most prolific PGA TOUR winners in history and long considered among the sport’s finest putters, suffered a heart attack and died Saturday at his home in Springville, Utah. He was 83.
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Casper's son Bob said in an email that his father had spent five weeks after Thanksgiving in the hospital battling pneumonia. He had been able to return home, though, and was undergoing rehabilitation four days a week.
His condition worsened late last week, however. His wife of 62 years, Shirley, and other members of his family were with Casper when he passed away.
Between 1956 until 1975, Casper won 51 PGA TOUR titles -- including three major championships -- and led the money list in 1966 and 1968. His 51 career victories place him seventh on the TOUR’s all-time victories list.
“Billy Casper was one of the greatest winners in PGA TOUR history and was a dominant player for the better part of three decades,” PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem said. “We remember his three major championships and his incredible work on the greens that made him one of the best putters of his generation.
“Beyond his career as a player, though, we will remember Billy as tremendous husband and father, a man devoted to family, charitable pursuits and his religion. He truly has left us with a lasting legacy."
Casper won at least one PGA TOUR title for 16 consecutive years and earned titles in three different decades. He also enjoyed 14 seasons where he won at least two tournaments, the high mark coming in 1968 when he earned six tournament titles.
Born in San Diego, California, on June 24, 1931, Casper learned to play the game on the family farm in New Mexico. He turned professional in 1954 and won his first TOUR title two years later, at the Labatt Open in Canada.
During his career, Casper claimed five Vardon Trophies for low scoring average and was an eight-time U.S. Ryder Cup member. He won his first seven Ryder Cup matches to start his career, and he amassed 23 1/2 total points -- still a U.S. Ryder Cup record. Overall, he compiled an all-time 20-10-7 record, including a 6-2-2 mark in singles’ play.
Casper also captained the U.S. squad to victory over Europe in 1979.
In 1959, Casper broke through for his first major championship -- winning the U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in New York. He won his second U.S. Open in thrilling fashion at San Francisco’s Olympic Club in 1966. Trailing Arnold Palmer by seven shots with nine holes to play, Casper came from behind to tie Palmer and force a playoff. He then beat Palmer in the 18-hole extra session the following day. The victory is still one of the most unlikely in U.S. Open history.
As recounted in his autobiography "The Big Three and Me," Casper said he stood on the 10th tee during the final round and said to Palmer, “I’d like to finish second.” Casper said Palmer replied, “I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
Casper wrote further, “[The 1966 U.S. Open] was destined to go down in history as the Open Arnold Palmer blew -- a bookend to his seven-stroke come-from-behind charge to win in 1960 -- but to my mind, and this is how I suspect Arnold would prefer to view it as well, it will always be the Open I won.”
Casper added a Green Jacket to his closet when he won the 1970 Masters Tournament in the event's last 18-hole playoff over childhood friend and fellow San Diego native Gene Littler. He defeated Littler by five shots.
Due to severe food-allergy issues, Casper became well known for his interesting diet of exotic meats, including caribou, elk, hippopotamus and buffalo. Because of that, he became known as “Buffalo Bill,” and called his golf-course management and communications company, in a nod to his nickname, Buffalo Communications.
After turning 50, Casper captured eight Champions Tour titles, winning his first in his adopted state of Utah, at the Shootout at Jeremy Ranch in Park City. He won his final tournament, the Transamerica Senior Golf Championship, by three strokes over Al Geiberger.
The World Golf Hall of Fame inducted Casper in 1978, with Dorothy Campbell Hurd Howe, Bing Crosby, Harold Hilton and Clifford Roberts.
Throughout his career, Casper has been active in charity work in both the San Diego area and in Utah, helping youth through his Billy’s Kids initiatives. Casper said of his foundation, “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 commodity. All our benefactors are terrific organizations dedicated to broadening our children’s views and teaching them invaluable life skills necessary to compete in an ever-changing world.”
Casper is survived by his wife, 11 children, six of whom are adopted, and 71 grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Editor's note: Some of Billy Casper's contemporaries remember the World Golf Hall of Famer below.
Lee Trevino: I met Billy when I first went out on TOUR and found him be an absolute delight as a gentleman, along with his wife, Shirley. And I knew all his kids. But most of all, I looked at his game. At the time I came out on TOUR, they had The Big Three, Gary (Player), Arnold (Palmer) and Jack (Nicklaus). I actually thought in that era, Billy Casper may have been the best player. But Billy wasn’t with (Mark) McCormack’s group, so he didn’t get that billing. I could talk for days about Billy Casper. He’s probably done as much or more for not only his religion but for charity than anybody. Plus, he won, what, 50-something tournaments? He won major championships. It makes me very happy to tell people that I was one of his friends, that I was a friend of Billy Casper’s.
Jack Nicklaus: From my standpoint, every time I looked up at the leaderboard and I was coming down near the end of the golf tournament, I was trying to find (Arnold) Palmer and (Gary) Player, and I was always trying to find (Billy) Casper. You knew if you found one of those three names on the leaderboard, you better be playing golf if you wanted to win the tournament. Billy was in that group. He was a really good player.
Gary Player: I played a lot with Billy, and I always thought Billy had a wonderful short game. The way he managed the golf course -- he had tremendous course management, which not a lot of people talk about. They talk about elongating, but that’s not what wins golf tournaments; it’s a great short game, the kinds of games we see with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. They are not good drivers of the ball and yet, they’ve been No. 1 and No. 2. Billy had a great short game, managed the course well and he was always a thorough gentleman.
Hale Irwin: Billy has just been a quality guy, and he helped a lot of people for a long time. He really went unrecognized for some great golf. You look at Jack Nicklaus’ years, you look at Arnold Palmer’s years and then you pull out the record book and see what Billy did in those same years and it often exceeded theirs. Billy was really not recognized as one of the truly great players. In my first encounter with Billy, I was in a playoff with him in 1970 at the L.A. Open at Rancho Park. He beat me on the first hole. That helped him at that point top $1 million in career earnings. Ever since then, Billy has been a good friend, and he was one of my first teammates in my first Ryder Cup. Gene Littler I played with in the morning, and Billy I played with in the afternoon.
Dave Stockton: Billy Casper was everything good about being a professional. He was a kind and gentle man -- a great player. It should have been The Big Four when it was actually The Big Three because Casper was an unbelievable player. He had a great short game, and he had a great mind and a whole solid golf game to go with it. He was always positive when you were around him and fun to play with. He probably didn’t stand out as much as some of the guys. But you know the kindness he and Shirley showed with all the kids they adopted. Theirs is a great, touching story about an American family. I was proud to know him, proud to play against him and proud to play with him on the first Ryder Cup team I was on in ’71 in St. Louis. He’s been a great friend and inspiration.
Charles Coody: The first thing I would say about Billy is he was a great player. He always played within himself, he knew his capabilities and he had his shots the way he played them. I’m sure he probably mapped out a course as to how he was going to try to play it during the week. He didn’t vary from that. When he started moving the ball from left to right with the driver, that’s when he really became a great player because he always had the short game, the ability to chip and play the sand shots. And, of course, he was an exceptionally good putter. He didn’t say much during a round. He just stayed within himself and played his game. But on top of all that, Billy was really a good guy, a good family man. He was very kind, very giving, and I always had the highest of admiration for him.
Don January: I called him Trailer Bill. Years ago, he traveled with (Arnold) Palmer, (Gene) Littler and Bud Holscher, and they would pull trailers behind their cars rather than stay in motels -- because there weren’t many motels back then. He did that for a year or two until he finally found out how dangerous that was driving on those little roads we used to drive on. But Billy was a hell of a player. He won 50-plus tournaments and had a hell of a record. That’s a lot of good playing at a lot of different places. I always respected Billy. He learned to drive the ball in the fairway, and he had that marvelous short game. When he learned to drive the ball, well, that’s when he started beating everybody. It seemed he would win four, five, six tournaments every year. Arnold did it. Jack did it. But you can count those guys on your hands the guys who were winning that many tournaments.
Al Geiberger: Billy is a bit older than me, so I followed him onto the TOUR. I was responsible for a couple of his wins, losing in playoffs to him. I felt he never got the credit he deserved, even with all the wins. He was like a machine. He had a unique golf swing but a simple golf swing. I called what he hit a power fade, but the ball kind of acted like a hook. Not many players could hit that low-slider fade. Of course, we all know he was a brilliant putter who did it in a totally different style. He would put his hands way down (on the grip), almost against his left leg. Billy was a wonderful person and a great guy who finally, especially in the last several years, got the credit that was due him, credit he truly deserved. He was a great player and a great person. The Big Three was getting all the attention, and meanwhile Billy was beating them all.
Lee Elder: He was a wonderful person. He was such a close personal friend, I really feel it. The same with Charlie Sifford. To lose two people you're close to in a matter of a week is pretty (difficult). (Billy) was equally good as a person as he was a golfer. Billy was always the type of person who always had a welcome for a person with a big smile. It's a shame he was not given the (recognition) as a player at the time but coming along in that era with the likes of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, naturally it was pretty hard even though he was winning as many tournaments. He was one of my favorites and will always be not just because he was my captain (at the 1979 Ryder Cup) but I got a chance to get to know him and he was a wonderful human being. I think his greatest achievement was in 1966 (at the U.S. Open) when he came so far back against the No. 1 player in the world, which was Arnold Palmer. To win that event did a lot for him -- good and bad because a lot of people didn't like the fact he beat Arnold and because a lot of people were cheering for him because he won a major championship coming from so far back. It was my second U.S. Open and I played with Johnny Miller ... I walked the back nine with (Billy) when I was done. He his some great shots. He would always kid and say he was lucky, and maybe so but there some skill was involved.
BILLY CASPER TIMELINE
Year Milestone 1931 Billy Casper was born on June 24, 1931 in San Diego, Calif. 1954 Casper turns professional. 1956 Casper earns his first PGA TOUR win at the Labatt Open. 1959 Casper wins his first major at the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. 1960 Casper captures his first Vardon Trophy. He would go on to earn four more. 1961 Casper participates in his first Ryder Cup. 1966 Casper rallies from seven strokes down with nine holes to play at the 1966 U.S. Open to tie Arnold Palmer before winning the ensuing 18-hole playoff. He is named the PGA Player of the Year, wins the Byron Nelson Trophy and earns his fifth Vardon Trophy. 1968 Casper is the leading money winner and becomes the first player to surpass $200,000 in single-season earnings. He also wins the Vardon Trophy and the Byron Nelson Trophy. 1970 Casper becomes the second player to reach $1 million in official TOUR earnings with a win at the Los Angeles Open. He beats Gene Littler in a playoff for the 1970 Masters title, the last 18-hole playoff at Augusta National. Casper is named PGA Player of the Year and wins the Byron Nelson Award. 1975 Casper earns his 51st TOUR title by winning the 1975 First NBC New Orleans Open. Plays on his eighth United States Ryder Cup team. 1978 Casper is inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. 1979 Casper is chosen as the non-playing Ryder Cup Team captain. 1981 Casper joins the SENIOR TOUR, now the Champions Tour. 1982 Casper earns his first SENIOR TOUR win at The Shootout at Jeremy Ranch. He is also inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame. 1983 Casper beats Rod Funseth in an 18-hole playoff for the 1983 U.S. Senior Open title at Hazeltine National Golf Club. 1988 Casper wins his second Senior Tour major by defeating Al Geiberger by two strokes at the Mazda Senior TPC. 1989 Casper captures the last of his nine Senior Tour titles by winning the Transamerica Senior Golf Championship. 2002 Casper finishes T4 in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf -- Demaret Division. SOURCES: PGA TOUR; World Golf Hall of Fame
PGA TOUR and Champions Tour players were quick to react on social media Saturday night:
RIP Bill. Will miss you at the Masters Champions dinner. Condolences to you Shirley and your family.— Tom Watson (@TomWatsonPGA) February 8, 2015
RIP Billy Casper. We played 1977 Kenya Open! Can still see his legendary draw land 15 ft right and spin sideways to 5 feet! #Inspiration— Sir Nick Faldo (@NickFaldo006) February 8, 2015
It's amazing to see all the good and nice things we all have to say about Billy Casper 's passing . Obviously he was quite the man !!— David Frost (@Frostpga) February 8, 2015
Remembering Billy Casper