Sunday, June 24, 2012

An Evening with a Champion – 1966 U.S. Open Winner Billy Casper at Lake Merced Golf Club

The Lake Course at San Francisco’s Olympic Club has gained a reputation for producing come-from-behind winners whenever it hosts the U.S. Open golf tournament. The first time that the Olympic Club hosted the Open, in 1955, an unheralded municipal course pro from Iowa named Jack Fleck overtook the great Ben Hogan to tie in regulation play, and then defeated Hogan in a playoff the next day. In 1966, Arnold Palmer had a seven-stroke lead over Billy Casper going into the final round. Overly-complacent with such a large lead in hand with nine holes to play, Palmer had pressed too hard on Olympic’s back nine in pursuit of Ben Hogan’s U.S. Open scoring record. Casper made birdies while Palmer made bogies, and once again a leader was overtaken to force a playoff, and the come-from-behind player won. In this instance it was less of an upset than the Fleck vs. Hogan battle eleven years earlier – Casper had twenty-nine wins to his credit at that point, including the 1959 U.S. Open.

The U.S. Open returned to the storied environs of the Olympic Club this year, for the fifth time, and these past champions returned to the Bay Area to revisit the scene of their long-ago triumphs, and to be fêted by appreciative golf enthusiasts. On the evening of Wednesday, June 13th, the night before the opening rounds of the 112th U.S. Open were to begin, one of these great champions from the past shared his recollections of those events with a roomful of golf fans – Billy Casper joined a group of the members of Lake Merced Golf Club for an evening of conversation and recollection, not only about those five eventful days in 1966 at the Olympic Club, but his entire career. I was privileged to be among Mr Casper’s audience that evening, as a guest of Lake Merced’s general manager, Donna Lowe. It was a wonderful evening with a great past champion of our game, and a fitting prelude to the competition that was to begin the following morning, less than a mile away, at the Olympic Club.

Billy Casper, 1966 United States Open champion, spoke to an attentive group at Lake Merced Golf Club on the evening of Wednesday, June 13th, 2012 – the night before the start of the 2012 United States Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, the site of his Open victory 46 years before. Photo credit: Sarah Reid/LMGC

As reflected in the title of his recent autobiography, The Big Three and Me, Casper languished somewhat in the shadow of the three most recognizable players of the late 1960s – Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus. This is quite amazing given their respective records: in the period from 1964 to 1970, Casper won 27 times on Tour to Nicklaus’ 25, and Palmer and Player’s combined 21. Casper’s victories in that six-year span included the 1966 U.S. Open, of course, and the 1970 Masters, both wins coming in playoffs. Casper acquired a reputation as something of an eccentric at the time – for instance, it was well known that he included exotic game meats such as buffalo, bear and elk in his diet; what was not so well known was that his eccentric diet came as a result of doctor’s orders to rotate different types of protein because of food allergies.

The Big Three and Me, the new autobiography of Billy Casper.
His audience learned this and much more as Mr Casper spoke that evening, sitting in the handsome dining room of the Lake Merced Golf Club’s clubhouse with the evening sun playing shadows across the 18th hole just over his shoulder. Introduced by his long-time friend, retired attorney James Parkinson (Mr Parkinson assisted Mr Casper in the production of his book), who acted as MC and prompter, Casper offered a retrospective of his life and career, with an emphasis on the events of that same week, 46 years earlier, when the U.S. Open came to the Olympic Club for the second time.

With a level of recall that is quite remarkable in a man 80 years of age, Casper related the events of that midsummer weekend nearly a half-century ago to a rapt audience. Palmer and Casper had come to the last nine holes on Sunday with Palmer in command of a 7-shot lead over Casper, and Jack Nicklaus another two shots back. As they made their way to the 10th tee, Palmer heard Casper say, “I’m going to have to play like hell just to finish second.” and responded “I’ll do everything I can to help you.” That somewhat cocky response from Palmer stiffened Casper’s resolve, and while Palmer turned his attention toward the larger goal of breaking the Hogan scoring record, and away from his fellow competitor and victory in the tournament at hand, Casper determined to do his best to do better than to “just finish second.”

With a nearly stroke-by-stroke recollection of their play over the last nine holes of Olympic’s Lake Course, Mr Casper related to the audience Palmer’s fall, and his own rise, over the closing holes of regulation play: Palmer’s duckhook into the rough at 10 for a bogey to Casper’s par, paring his lead to six; their matching pars and birdies at the 11th and 12th holes, respectively; another pull to the left by Palmer at the par-3 13th to Casper’s par – cutting Palmer’s lead to five with five holes to play. After matching pars at 14, the 15th hole changed things up – Casper was safely on in one, facing a breaking 20-foot putt for birdie, but Palmer’s over-confident try for the flag bounced off the firm, fast putting surface into the back rough. Casper rolled in his birdie putt and Palmer made bogey – a two-shot swing, and Palmer’s lead was now three, with three holes to play.

Now they came to the 16th hole, a big sweeping left-hander of a par-5 which was playing at 604 yards that day. The sixteenth hole had been a subject of conversation leading up to the beginning of play at the 2012 Open, due to a new tee box which stretched the length of the hole to a record-setting 670 yards. Though no one could have known it on that Wednesday evening before the tournament, the 16th hole was to play a part in the final result of the 2012 tournament that was similar to the part it had played in 1966.

Just as Jim Furyk was to do the Sunday following this evening’s talk, Palmer’s tee shot in 1966 went hard left off the tee. While Furyk’s tee shot ended up in the left-hand trees from a shortened tee – only 562 yards that day – Palmer’s drive from 604 ended up in the thick rough left of the fairway. He had tried for a long drawing tee shot that would get him close enough for a chance to get on in two, but he had tried too hard, and pulled it left. After two slashes at the ball with an iron, Palmer was out. His spoon (3-wood) from the fairway ended up in a greenside bunker, but he salvaged a bogey six with a blast out of the bunker and a 4-foot putt – “…the greatest six I ever made,” he called it later.

As good as Palmer’s save at 16 was, Casper had made a birdie with a conservative drive to the fairway, an advance to within a pitch-shot of the green with a spoon, and a wedge to fifteen feet. He rolled in the 15-footer for birdie and another two-shot swing – Palmer’s lead was down to a single stroke.

Stories of his life and career came easily to mind for Mr Casper – with only a little prompting from his long-time friend, and co-producer of his book, James Parkinson (seated). Photo credit: Sarah Reid/LMGC

Mr Casper recounted these events as if they had happened last week instead of nearly a half-century ago, and his audience of Lake Merced club members and guests hung on every word. He recalled how Palmer missed a seven-foot putt for par on the 17th hole, tying the tournament, and how, after matching pars at the amphitheater-like finishing hole, they finished in a dead-heat 278 after 72 holes of regulation play. The seven-stroke slide over the last nine holes seemed to have taken the wind out of Palmer’s sails, though, and Casper rolled up the victory in the 18-hole playoff the following day, carding a 1-under 69 to Palmer’s 3-over score of 73.

Two U.S. Opens at the Olympic Club, eleven years apart, two come-from-behind victories – and those of us in the audience at Lake Merced Golf Club that evening were lucky enough to hear the story of the second directly from the victor, Billy Casper. Mr Casper took a couple of questions from the audience before wrapping things up (asked if he still played as well as he used to, he said “I hit it so short now, I can hear my ball land.”), and then the evening was over – much too soon. He signed souvenir pin flags and copies of his book for audience members before leaving – mementoes of a memorable evening with a great champion.

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