Ten years ago, Billy Casper stalked his putt on the 18th green at Augusta National, a tricky 5-footer for double bogey, and the putt meant nothing while meaning everything. In the gallery was Shirley, his wife of more than a half century. In the gallery were 17 other Casper family members – some of his 11 children, some of his many grandchildren (when he died Saturday at age 83, there would be 71 grandchildren and great grandchildren) and some of his friends. They were there to see Billy Casper’s last Masters.
There were also reporters there, almost 100 reporters. I was one of them, and to be painfully honest, we were not there to cover Billy Casper’s last Masters. We were there because Casper needed that last putt to shoot 106, the worst score ever recorded during the Masters, a score so high that many of the reporters (not me) could have beaten it.
Billy Casper never did get his due. In the 1960s, golf was dominated by what was then called the Big Three – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – but for a time, Casper was better than all of them. For three years, from 1968-1970, Casper won more tournaments than Nicklaus, Palmer and Player. Combined. He was a genius with the putter. In the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic, he trailed Arnold Palmer by seven shots with nine holes to go. He tied the score with a combination of brilliant play (he shot 3 under on the back nine) and Palmer’s collapse (Arnie shot 4 over). Casper then beat the King in a playoff.
At the 1968 Colonial – viewed by many as a sort of junior major – he won by five shots. At the 1970 Masters, he breezed by Gene Littler in a playoff to win his third major championship. In all, he won 51 PGA Tour tournaments, more than Phil Mickelson or Tom Watson, Gene Sarazen or Lee Trevino.
Five times, Casper won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average – Arnold Palmer won it four times, Jack Nicklaus remarkably never did.
“A truly great player,” Nicklaus said. “To me, one of the greatest things you can say about a golfer is that when you look up at the leaderboard and see their name, you know that you’re going to have to go out there and win it because they’re not going to give it away. Billy was one of those players. He wasn’t giving anything away. You had to beat him.”
When we last saw Casper compete at the Masters, he was 73 years old and it had been many years since his game matched up to Augusta National. He would come out to Augusta more or less every year (the right of all former champions), shoot in the 80s, take in the pleasant applause that former champions receive, and go home. Tradition. Then, as he got into his late 60s, he found it hard to keep his scores in the 80s. In 1999, he shot 86 in the first round and then shot a score somewhere in the 90s and withdrew rather than turn in that card. In 2000, he did more or less the same thing. Augusta National sent him a letter, gently recommending he not play anymore. And so, after two rounds in the 80s in 2001, Casper stopped coming.
Then, in 2005, he decided to make one last appearance. Shirley was the reason. His kids were the reason. They wanted the grandchildren to understand just how great he had been. They wanted to watch him play one more time. “People want to see you,” Shirley told him. “They really don’t care what you shoot.”
Casper made triple bogey on his first hole (he had started on the 10th because of the rain). He triple bogeyed the 11th hole too. He managed to put his ball over the water at 12 though not on the green, and as he looked at his chip, he said to his caddie Brian Taylor, “I shouldn’t be out here.”
“Yes you should,” Taylor said. “You are a Masters champion.”
He parred the 12th hole, a nice moment, and then it all came apart. He bogeyed 13, double-bogeyed 14, bogeyed 15 and then at 16, Billy Casper hooked five balls into the water. He made 14, and it was clear then that he would finish with the highest ever score at the Masters – Charles Kunkel shot 95 in 1956. Through seven holes, Billy Casper already had 49, more than halfway there.
“Gee,” Casper said to his playing partner Charles Coody after his 16th hole, “I hope this doesn’t stop my momentum.”
Casper didn’t have another hole like the 16th, but he also didn’t noticeably improve. He had practiced in preparation for Augusta, but to no avail. His game was gone. The gallery was mostly sympathetic. Yes, there were some who agreed with his 12th green sentiment, that he shouldn’t be out there, but many more agreed with his caddie. He was a champion. It was an honor to see him play. People rooted for him on every shot. They were contented by the occasional moment of brightness that shortened the 35 years since he had won the Masters.
On the 18th green, he faced that 5-footer for 106, and he tapped the ball downhill and watched it curl into the cup, the last great putt for one of golf’s greatest putters. There was real applause for him then, and he walked up into the flock or reporters who wanted to know how it felt for a great champion to shoot a hacker’s score. Billy Casper did not look sad. He had done what he came to do. His family saw him play. His fans got one final glimpse. He joked happily about his game. When asked how he felt about shooting the highest score in the tournament’s history, he smiled a little and tapped his pocket. “I didn’t turn my score in – I have the card in my back pocket,” he said. And it’s true – Billy Casper officially withdrew from the 2005 Masters. You won’t find it in the record books.
Then Casper gave one of my favorite answers ever. Someone asked him what he had wanted to shoot. It was a complicated question because Billy Casper had once been perhaps the best golfer in the world. There is something all of us must accept as we get older, something the mind won’t accept, something about how we aren’t quite what we used to be. What did he want to shoot? That’s obvious. He wanted to shoot 69, like he did when he beat Littler in the 1970 Masters playoff. He wanted to shoot 68, like he did the final round at Olympic when he caught Palmer. He wanted to shoot 69 like he did on the third day at Winged Foot when he took control of the U.S. Open more than 45 years earlier.
“What did you want to shoot?” he was asked.
“Golf,” Billy Casper answered.