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Tuesday, May 13, 2008 | Shirley Casper stood at the lectern in the San Diego Country Club banquet room, microphone in hand, following last week’s 16th annual Billy Casper Golf Classic.
She called out for Billy — San Diego’s most accomplished golfer and one of the game’s all-time greats — to assist her. Shirley was trying to get his attention to present prizes for the tournament that raises money for his foundation, “Billy’s Kids.”
The next time she paged Billy, the golfers at whose table he was engaged in conversation interrupted him, telling him to join his wife so the show could go on.
Otherwise, Casper might have kept mingling in the banquet room all night long. And that was after he greeted and chatted with golfers all afternoon on the course.
“I love coming here to renew acquaintances and relationships with people I’ve been involved with for many years,” said Casper, who makes his home most of the year in Utah. “It’s a chance to see them, to have them support the tournament, and it’s nice to able to raise money for kids.”
In the 16 years of Casper’s tournament, the Chula Vista High alumnus has raised more than $2 million in his backyard. The beneficiaries include the San Diego Junior Golf Association, Boys and Girls Clubs of San Diego and Junior Achievement.
Casper was clearly delighted with events, including wandering the course during the tournament.
At the banquet, he told some Marines they hit wonderful shots, and he wished he could hit balls like that. That’s a whopper, even if he is now 76-years-old. But who wouldn’t be awed to hear Casper utter such a compliment.
He personally handed out prizes at some holes. In fact, long-time San Diego teaching pro Bill Stutzer, a tournament volunteer, thought he had won a prize for a shot to the green.
“Billy said, “You’re a volunteer — I’m giving this to someone else,’”
Stutzer said with a good-natured laugh.
Who’s going to argue the rules with Billy Casper?
There is so much more money in golf these days than there was when Casper was in his prime, I wondered what he thought about it. Think of the money Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson play for compared to Casper’s time competing against golf’s big three — Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Because here’s a stat you should know about Billy Casper: Between 1964 and 1970, Casper’s 27 PGA Tour wins was more wins than Palmer, Nicklaus or Player.
Casper’s 51 tour wins still rank seventh all-time. Woods is the only active player ahead of him at fourth with 64, and the next active player is Mickelson with 33 to rank 13th.
One of the game’s greatest putters, Casper won three majors — the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic in an epic final-round comeback to force a playoff with Palmer that Casper won, and the 1970 Masters.
At Winged Foot, Casper stayed with friends in New Jersey the week before the tournament and drove up to the famed Mamaroneck, N.Y. course for a practice round. It was then he decided he would lay up instead of playing for the green on the third hole, a 216-yard par three.
“It was a 2-iron or 4-wood to the green, and I hit a 5-iron or a 6-iron short of the green and pitched up,” Casper said. “Fortunately, I pitched close enough to hole four (par) putts.
“Bob Rosburg (the runner-up) is still mad at me. He says, ‘You beat me by one shot and laid up on the third hole every day.’ Every time he sees me, he mentions it.”
That same year Rosburg won the 1959 PGA Championship, meaning Casper denied him half of a Grand Slam.
Casper tells the story because he thinks the millions of dollars on today’s tour results in today’s golfers failing to learn to manage a round on a course.
He says he and Gene Littler, a contemporary San Diegan that won the 1961 U.S. Open, played at a time when the tour’s entire purse for the year was around $750,000.
“They play for so much money now, they go for flag all the time,” Casper said. “They only need to catch lightning in a bottle three or four times, and it’s a successful year. When Gene and I played, you couldn’t waste too many shots. If you did, you didn’t make a lot of money.”
Casper, though, doesn’t regret missing out on the opportunity to play for today’s purses. Not when he looks back on his career.
“The players were closer when we played because we traveled together,”
Casper said. “It was a different time and different way of playing.
There isn’t that same closeness today as there used to be among us.”
But what about the money he could raise if he had his star power in today’s golf world? He could sell out The Waldorf-Astoria with $10,000-a-plate dinners. He wouldn’t have to spend time organizing a tournament or mingling in the banquet room.
But Casper said he never thinks of it that way. Besides, Billy wouldn’t have as much fun, although Shirley would probably have less work to do to keep Billy on schedule.
“I don’t think I’d play my tournament anywhere else,” Casper said. “I’d still be here in San Diego raising money for kids.”
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send a letter to the editor.