Billy Casper: “A killer on the golf course”

Three-time major champion was perhaps the greatest putter the game has ever seen

Billy Casper: ““On a pitch-black night, when you walk up to the hole just to see where it is, it stamps a very strong image in your mind. You develop a feel for everything: the moisture on the grass, the small change in elevation, the exact distance to the hole, all kinds of things your eyes alone can’t tell you.” Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Billy Casper, a two-time US Open winner a Masters champion and the player with the seventh-most wins in PGA Tour history, died on Saturday at his home in Springville, Utah. He was 83.

The cause was a heart attack, said his company Billy Casper Golf, which owns or operates many courses around the country. It said he had been in failing health in recent months.

A brilliant putter with a superb short game as well, Casper was nonetheless overshadowed in his prime by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. But he won 51 PGA Tour events from 1956 through 1975. Only Sam Snead, Tiger Woods, Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Palmer and Byron Nelson have won more PGA tournaments.

“Billy was a fantastic player and I don’t think he gets enough credit for being one,” Nicklaus said upon Casper’s death. Casper played on eight Ryder Cup teams, winning 23.5 points, more than any other American, and he was the captain of the 1979 squad.


He was the PGA Tour player of the year in 1966 and 1970, won the Vardon Trophy for best stroke average five times, and was the tour’s leading money winner twice. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1978.

Casper also won nine times on the senior tour, including two majors, the 1983 US Senior Open and the 1988 Senior Tournament Players Championship.

“If I had to pick a man to play one round and my life depended on it, that man would be Billy Casper,” Nelson was quoted as having said in 1970.

"Billy was a killer on the golf course," the tour pro Dave Marr said. "He just gave you this terrible feeling he was never going to make a mistake, and then of course he'd drive that stake through your heart with that putter."

Casper’s first major victory came at the 1959 US Open at Winged Foot when he set a tournament record with only 114 putts over 72 holes. Relying on his short game as well, he laid up in front of the narrow green on the 216-yard, par-3 third hole in each round, then got up and down for par.

His most dramatic triumph came at the Olympic Club in San Francisco in the 1966 US Open, when he trailed Palmer by seven strokes with nine holes left, caught him with a four-under 32 and beat him by four shots in an 18-hole playoff. Over the 90 holes, he never three-putted.

"He's the greatest putter on the pro tour," Palmer said after losing in the playoff. Casper won the 1970 Masters in an 18-hole playoff against Gene Littler, who was a fellow junior golfer during his youth in Southern California. Casper hit what he called the best shot of his career on the par-5 second hole in the playoff. In tall grass and with a small log two or three inches behind his ball, he used a 9-iron to loft a shot over tall pines and onto the fairway.

Johnny Miller once told Sports Illustrated, "Billy has the greatest pair of hands God ever gave a human being."

William Earl Casper Jr was born on January 24th, 1931, in San Diego, but his family soon moved to Chula Vista, near the Mexican border. When he was four, his father put a golf club in his hands on a three-hole course he built on a New Mexico farm where the family was living at the time.

He was a chubby child, taunted as Fatso by his schoolmates, but an athletic career beckoned. He caddied at the San Diego Country Club in Chula Vista. At the end of the day, the caddies played cards, then went to a green and practiced putting in the dark.

“On a pitch-black night, when you walk up to the hole just to see where it is, it stamps a very strong image in your mind,” Casper told Golf Digest in 2005. “You develop a feel for everything: the moisture on the grass, the small change in elevation, the exact distance to the hole, all kinds of things your eyes alone can’t tell you.”

When he was 16, Casper watched Ben Hogan play in an exhibition, and he grew to idolise him as a master course manager and shotmaker. Casper recalled that the first time he played with Hogan in a threesome, Hogan’s putting deserted him. As Casper told it in Golf Digest: “The next morning Mr Hogan called me over. He looked around to make sure no one was within earshot. Then he whispered: ‘Billy, tell me. How do you putt?’”

Casper attended Notre Dame briefly, and while serving in Navy, was assigned to recreational activities. He turned pro in 1954. He won his first PGA Tour event two years later. Soon he was among the game’s finest golfers, but he lacked charisma. He seemed to be known as much for his weight swings (he weighed between 180 and 220 pounds in winning his three PGA Tour majors), his numerous allergies that prompted a diet plentiful in buffalo meat and organic vegetables, and his conversion to Mormonism in 1966.

“He’ll have me eating buffalo meat soon,” Palmer quipped after Casper caught him in the fourth round at the 1966 Open.

Casper won his last senior tournament in 1989.

He is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Shirley Franklin Casper; his sons Billy, Robert, Byron, David, Charlie and Tommy; his daughters Linda, Judi, Jeni, Julia and Sarah, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Long after his greatest days in golf, Casper pondered his place in the sport’s history. “I think people recognise what I did more readily than when it happened,” he said in 1989. “In my best years, everybody was talking about Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player.”

Miller once told the Copley News Service: “Billy didn’t waste energy on galleries, on chitchat. He was out there to get a job done, very professional. He was like a hit man.”