Sixty-five springs ago, a 15-year-old boy watched Ben Hogan practicing on a fairway at San Diego Country Club in advance of his 36-hole match against British Open champion Dai Rees.
“He hit balls from every side of the fairway and from the center of the fairway, and I couldn’t figure out what he was doing until years later,” Hall of Fame golfer Billy Casper said from his seat at a table in the Alvamar Country Club dining room Wednesday. “He was exercising golf management. He was trying to find out from which side of the fairway you could get the ball closest to the hole. See, that’s smart. And that’s something I employed in my career.”
Billy Casper Golf now runs Alvamar, and it’s fitting that Casper has a golf-management group in his name because Casper not only was one of the greatest putters in the history of the game, he knew a thing or two about managing his golf game.
“Guys today,” Casper said, “they don’t care where they put the flag, they’re going right at the flag. They don’t understand how to play conservative golf. And conservative golf is so important. Every hole is not a birdie hole.”
Casper possessed so much confidence in his chipping and putting he exercised more patience than most. He showed it early in his career when he won the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. (He also won the U.S. Open in 1966, the Masters in 1970 and 48 other PGA Tour events.)
“The third hole was a 215-yard par 3, uphill a little bit, no water, big sand trap on the left and a big grass bunker on the right, and the green sloped heavy from the back to the front. And I decided in the practice round I was going to lay up with a 5-iron or a 6-iron. Now, who ever heard of a guy laying up on a hole that didn’t have water? And I pitched, and I made four pars, and I won the tournament by one shot over Bob Rosburg. People thought I was crazy doing this.”
On his way to that victory, Casper had 31 one-putt greens and one three-putt green.
Capser golfed before players were paid huge sums for brand loyalty.
“Dave Stockton and I putted with a Ray Cook putter for years and years and years and years,” Casper said, laughing. “Ray Cook probably made a pretty good fortune out of the two of us, and he never gave us a dime.”
The key to Casper’s putting stroke?
“I tried to keep the blade of the club square to the intended line. In other words, I didn’t allow the putter to swing in or swing out,” Casper said. “If you kept the putter square to the line, you really had a good chance of holing putts. I haven’t fooled with the belly putter. In fact, I’ve got too much belly to fool with the belly putter. But I think that’s what the concept of the belly putter is, it keeps the blade of the putter square to the intended line. And this is what I did throughout my career.”
Casper, 80, watches today’s game. He said he is close friends with Phil Mickelson and also roots for Tiger Woods.
Of former Kansas University golfer Gary Woodland, Casper said: “He’s a fine player. He just needs to fully understand how to play.”
What is the key to fully understanding how to play golf?
“You know, you play with three things in this game,” he said. “One is your physical ability, two is your mind, and three is your heart. And ones that really succeed play with all three of them. I played with so much in here, in my bosom, and if I didn’t feel right, then I would go to my conservative shots. Many of the writers said I couldn’t win at Augusta because I didn’t go for the par-5 holes (in two).”
The green jacket was slipped onto Casper’s back in 1970 after he defeated Gene Littler in a playoff.
“If you look back just a few years (to 2007), Zach Johnson laid up on the 5-pars, and he made 11 birdies out of the 16 laying up,” Casper said. “That was my approach. If I didn’t feel right in here (points to chest), I would not go. But if I felt right in here, I would go. And that’s heart stuff, stuff that comes from the inside.”
Casper played in an era when Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player were considered “The Big Three.” Casper related how when he played with Palmer, who usually liked to putt out, rather than mark his ball, the gallery would be flocking sideways to the next hole by the time Casper brought his putter back.
Casper recently wrote a book by the title, “Billy Casper: The Big Three and Me.”
“We had a great era,” said Casper, who with wife Shirley raised 11 children. “It was really a great era. You know, the era just before us was great, too. There was (Sam) Snead, Hogan and (Byron) Nelson, and there was a fourth. Do you remember who the fourth was?”
Ken Venturi? Wrong.
“Jimmy Demaret,” Casper said. “Nobody remembers Jimmy Demaret, but he was right with them. He won the Masters three times with a fade. Now you look at the name of my book: ‘Billy Casper: The big three and me.’”