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Golf legend Billy Casper dies

Hall of Fame golf champion Billy Casper, whose 51 victories on the PGA Tour rank as the seventh highest total of all time, died at his home in Springville Saturday. He was 83.

Casper, who joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the very peak of his celebrity, was well-known to Utahns. The San Diego native was a resident of the state for many years. His wife of 62 years, Shirley, was at his side at the end, along with other family members.

His ascension to the loftiest reaches of professional golf was as unconventional as it was unlikely. Born to working-class parents in the heart of the Great Depression, he developed a homemade swing into one of the most successful the sport has ever known. He played a conservative game from tee to green, emphasizing course management he learned by observing his friend and idol, the great Ben Hogan, and used what many have labeled the greatest putting stroke in history to finish the job on the greens.

“Golf balls at the factory hoped they’d get to be putted by Billy Casper,” contemporary Chi Chi Rodriguez once said.

Casper’s life connected to every era of the modern game of golf. He knew and associated personally with every great champion, from Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen, to Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. His playing career was in lockstep with Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus — “the Big Three.” From 1962 through 1970, when all four were in their prime, Casper won 33 tournaments, Nicklaus 33, Palmer 30 and Player eight. From 1964 through 1970, his 27 victories were two more than Nicklaus’ 25 and four more than the 21 won by Palmer and Player combined.

“Billy Casper was a threat to win every golf tournament he entered,” wrote Palmer, Nicklaus and Player in a foreword they contributed to Billy’s autobiography, “The Big Three and Me.” “He beat us as many times as we beat him.”

“The trio really should have been a quartet,” said Nicklaus.

Casper’s 51 PGA Tour victories, won between 1956 and 1975, rank behind only Sam Snead, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson. He won three majors in an era when the emphasis on major championships was only beginning. He captured the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club and the 1970 Masters.

In 1992, when the PGA commissioned a comprehensive statistical comparison to determine the best golfers in the tour’s history, Billy Casper ranked fourth all time, behind only Snead, Nicklaus and Palmer — and tied with Hogan.

His lifetime winning percentage of 9.2 percent (51 victories in 561 career starts) ranks as the third highest of the modern era (1950-on). Only Jack Nicklaus (74 victories in 594 starts for 12.3 percent) and Tiger Woods (79 victories in 317 starts for 24.9 percent) are higher.

He won three Vardon Trophies, signifying the lowest per-round average for the year on the PGA Tour. Twice he was named PGA Player of the Year, in 1966 and 1970 (and would have easily won a third in 1968, when he won six tournaments, but an award was not given that year because of Tour infighting). He was the leading money winner twice.

As an eight-time Ryder Cup player, he won 23½ points for the U.S. team, to this day the highest total ever for an American. The record for those teams was seven wins and one tie. In 1979 he was captain of the victorious U.S. Ryder Cup team.

He won at least one tournament a year on the PGA Tour for 16 consecutive seasons (1956-1971), the second longest streak in history, and he was the second person, behind Arnold Palmer, to win a million dollars playing golf, a feat he achieved by the 1970 season.

“It took me 15 years to do it,” Casper observed recently. “Now they do it in a weekend.”

He and Palmer, who both started the Tour in 1955, enjoyed a lifelong rivalry. Casper’s triumph over Palmer at the 1966 U.S. Open is considered the greatest comeback in major championship history. He was seven shots behind with nine holes to play, caught Palmer at the end of regulation, and won in the next day’s 18-hole playoff.

For all his prolific winning, he went largely unnoticed and unheralded. Part of that could be attributed to his Hogan-like on-course comportment that didn’t involve a lot of interaction with fans — something Palmer did that made him the most popular athlete of his era.

The great golfer Byron Nelson, who once won 11 tournaments in a row, said of Casper in 1970: “If I had to pick a man to play one round, and my life depended on it, that man would be Billy Casper. This man simply is a great player, although he never has been given credit for it.”

He was not one to seek the limelight. His off-the-course headlines were for a buffalo diet he adopted, meant to curb food and chemical allergies, and for his choice to join the Mormon Church on New Year’s Day in 1966.

He was 34 years old and had already won 29 times on the Tour when he joined the church. Just six months later he would claim his second U.S. Open title.

The Caspers became acquainted with the LDS Church in 1959, shortly after Billy’s first U.S. Open title, when he honored a commitment to longtime friend and native Utahn Don Collett to play in the Utah Open, even though the tournament was not a sanctioned PGA Tour event.

Staying at the old Hotel Utah across from Temple Square, he attended a broadcast of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and met Deseret News sports editor Harold G. “Hack” Miller, who befriended Casper by taking him fishing. They became close friends and, along with golf and fishing, talked intermittently about religion.

Six and a half years later, the Caspers asked Hack Miller to baptize them into the Mormon Church.

Billy and his wife Shirley became great LDS ambassadors. He was a tireless recruiter for BYU and during his career participated in hundreds of fireside talks in Mormon meetinghouses at PGA Tour stops, prompting Mormon golfers who followed in his wake to do likewise.

“I’d be the five-minute speaker and he’d be the 55-minute speaker,” said Johnny Miller, his longtime friend and protégé, who praised Casper’s legendary consistency. “He never had a bad week, he was probably the most consistent golfer who ever lived.”

An only child, William Earl Casper Jr. was born in a San Diego hospital on June 24, 1931, to William Earl Casper and Isabel Casper. Shortly thereafter the family moved to New Mexico to live with Billy’s paternal grandfather on his farm near Silver City. There, his father and his uncle Virgil fashioned a makeshift three-hole golf course on the property and put a golf club in Billy’s hands at the age of 4.

His parents divorced when he was 12. They were living in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista by then and Billy was largely raised at the nearby San Diego Country Club, where he made money as a caddy and developed his golf game with donated clubs and help from club members.

When he was 16 years old he received five lessons from the club pro, Charlie Heaney, who taught him the overlapping Vardon grip. They were the only golf lessons he took until later in his life when he played on the Senior/Champions Tour.

He excelled in what were the beginnings of San Diego’s internationally heralded junior golf program and was given a scholarship to play golf at Notre Dame. But the cold Indiana weather and his high school sweetheart, Shirley, quickly drove him out of school and back to San Diego, where he joined the U.S. Navy and married Shirley the week after she graduated from high school in 1952.

They were inseparable in nearly 63 years of married life together.

“People ask me if I had a psychologist, a dietician, and all those other coaches like all the players have today,” said Billy. “I tell them no, I had Shirley.”

Their first child, Linda, was born just before Billy and Shirley embarked on the Tour. Backed by two San Diego businessmen who would get 30 percent of his winnings, the young family of three set off in a 28-foot Spartan trailer, joining the Tour at the 1955 Western Open in Portland. Billy tied for 30th and won $33.33.

A year later, at the Labatt Open in Quebec, Canada, he won for the first time, collecting $5,000. By the end of 1958 he had paid off his backers.

Sons Billy and Bobby were born in 1956 and 1960, respectively. In 1966, the Caspers adopted Byron. He was followed by twins Judi and Jeni, then Julia, David, Charlie, Sarah and Tommy.

The family moved to Utah in 1976 when daughter Linda started college at BYU. They bought an orchard in Mapleton and raised organic fruit. For the 1979 Ryder Cup that Billy captained, he had Mapleton peaches flown in direct to the course at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. The winning U.S. Ryder cup team credited Billy’s peaches as a big reason for the win.

The Caspers later left Utah for San Diego when Billy joined the Senior (now Champions) Tour in its second year of existence in 1981. He went on to win nine more tournaments there, including the Shootout at Jeremy Ranch in 1982. He won two majors as a senior, the 1983 U.S. Senior Open (he is one of only seven men in history to win both the regular U.S. Open and Senior Open) and the Senior TPC in 1988.

Billy and Shirley returned full-time to Utah in 2007, settling in Springville.

The Utah Sports Hall of Fame inducted Billy into its ranks in 2012 and Gov. Gary Herbert proclaimed a Billy Casper Day in the state of Utah in June 2011. In the spring of 2013, Casper and Johnny Miller received the Governor’s State of Sports Lifetime Achievement Award for their outstanding contributions to golf and sports in Utah.

Casper’s love for his fellow man was reflected in his many acts of charity. Through his Billy’s Kids Foundation, highlighted by the tournament he hosted in San Diego every spring, more than $3 million was raised for children’s causes. But it was individuals Casper liked most to identify with. He spent time one-on-one with thousands, including the care-workers in the hospitals the last nine months of his life when he underwent numerous procedures on his heart.

“What I want to be remembered for is my love for my fellow man,” he said.

Billy Casper is survived by his wife, 11 children, 37 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.