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Lee Benson: Billy Casper gave and gave, until it ran out

In the summer of 2012, when the U.S. Open returned to The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Billy Casper, who 46 years earlier had won the 1966 Open there with his dramatic come-from-behind victory over Arnold Palmer, participated in an early-week press conference.

When his time was up, next to face the media was Tiger Woods. As the two met exiting the stage, they exchanged a hug.

The first question put to Woods was why Olympic, the place where Ben Hogan and Tom Watson also lost Opens, was so hard on favorites and so kind to underdogs.

Woods stared down the reporter who asked the question.

Apoplectic, he asked, “Do you know how many tournaments that man who just left the stage won in his career?”

It was another in a legion of stories about Casper, who died Saturday at his Springville home at the age of 83, not getting his due from the world, of being unsung.

But those who knew, knew.

They knew not just that Casper’s record as a golfer easily ranks him as one of the top champions in history — if he won 51 tournaments in this day and age, they’d build a statue to him — but that he compiled a legendary record off the golf course as well.

It wasn’t the first time Casper and Woods hugged. Two years earlier, they’d run into each other at the Masters when both came for the annual champions dinner on Tuesday of tournament week. News had recently broken about the out-of-control sex life that destroyed Woods’ marriage, making him something of a social pariah. Casper said just six words when he saw Woods: “Can I give you a hug?”

That was Casper, hugging the world. The late golf writer Jim Huber called him the "Dalai Lama of Golf.”

“No man I’ve ever known with his kind of credentials has ever been more eager to hug and be hugged,” said Huber. “To give until it runs out.”

I got to spend a considerable amount of time with the Dalai Lama of Golf the past 4 1/2 years, ever since being invited to help him write his autobiography in August of 2010.

At first I was skeptical about his desire to hug and be hugged. I hadn’t spent 40 years building up a resume as a cynical journalist for nothing. What was in it for him? What was his angle?

But the more signings we went to, the more appearances we arranged, the more outings we scheduled, the more I began to realize: Billy Casper was who he said he was.

The book, it turned out, was his ticket to hug people. It also made us money so I was interested in moving as many people past Casper as possible.

At first, when the lines stretched to the merchandise tent door at a U.S. Open or a Ryder Cup, I tried to hurry him up. We had sales to make.

Nothing doing. He couldn’t be rushed. The person standing in front of him was the only person on Earth. He’d sign that autograph of his like he was in a penmanship contest. He’d write “Keep your head down and finish high” and smile as he pushed the book back to its new owner.

“There’s a double meaning there,” he’d say.

True story: At the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in 2012 I watched Lee Trevino sign 25 pin flags in the same time Billy Casper signed one book.

The crazy thing was, people didn’t get out of line. They waited and waited and waited for their turn, so obvious was it that they were as important to him as he was to them.

His last full day on a golf course, it turns out, was last April at the Masters. Ever since he played his first tournament there in 1957, he returned every spring to Augusta National Golf Club. After his playing days ended he came for the traditional Tuesday night champions dinner and the weeklong reunion that followed.

On Tuesday, April 8, 2014, he was seated at his usual clubhouse table just off the first tee when fellow golfer Jay Haas approached and said he had someone he wanted Casper to meet. He then introduced Clebe McClary, a man in his 60s with one arm and a black patch over his left eye.

As Jim McCabe wrote the story in Golfweek, in 1968, McClary was a marine fighting in Vietnam when a battlefield explosion tore his body into a mangled, bloody mess.

He was airlifted to a military hospital in Japan, where, when he came to and realized he’d lost his arm and eye, he also lost his desire to live.

As McClary told McCabe that day in Augusta, “I wanted to die, and I’d have died right there if not for him.”

He was pointing at Casper.

Casper was in Japan in 1968 giving free exhibitions to entertain and cheer up the U.S. troops.

When the golfer approached his cot, according to McClary, “He put his arm around me, leaned in and said, ‘God could use you today. Don’t give up.’ Then he thanked me for what I had done for our country and said, ‘God bless you.’”

It was enough to keep the marine alive.

He recovered, returned to his home in South Carolina and got on with his life. He thought often about the man who encouraged him that day in Japan, but, a non-golfer himself — “I didn’t know golf from polo,” he said — he had no idea who he was.

Then one day in 2013 he struck up a conversation with a man who was staying next door at a house on Myrtle Beach. The man was professional golfer Jay Haas.

McClary told Haas the story from 1968 and asked if he had any idea who that golfer might have been.

Haas not only knew who that golfer might have been, he knew where he’d be in April.

When he introduced McClary and Casper in Augusta it was 46 years since they’d last met.

They hugged for five full minutes, while Casper whispered, “Don’t let go until you want to let go.”

“You never know what effect you’re going to have on another human being,” McClary said when they finally un-clinched. If it hadn’t been for Casper’s advice, he said, he’d have never found the faith in God that made him want to live.

That reunion with the marine was Billy Casper’s last full day on a golf course. As Jim McCabe went off to file his story, Casper attended the champions dinner that night, came back the next day, collapsed on the clubhouse porch and was rushed to the hospital.

Thus began more than nine months of numerous heart surgeries and procedures, followed by a bout with pneumonia — conditions that conspired to bring about his demise. But not before he hugged every nurse and doctor who worked on him, and all else who came within his grasp. As Jim Huber would say, he gave until it ran out.

Email: benson@deseretnews.com