Every so often, we meet people in life who make an indelible impression upon us and teach us lessons we might not otherwise learn. I have been blessed by such a relationship with a man whom I admired from afar -- but really did not know -- until two friends undertook a project which would change both of their lives forever... and many others as well.
Billy Casper was one of the greatest golfers of his generation -- he won 51 times on the PGA Tour and secured three Major championships -- but was even more incredible as a human being and humanitarian. He and his wife, Shirley, were married nearly 63 years and raised 11 children. On top of the countless speeches and appearances and charity events, Billy helped raise millions of dollars for worthwhile causes, especially the Boys and Girls Club. And through it all, he was the common man from hardscrabble circumstances who never lost sight of how far he had come, the people he had met, and all the places he had seen.
Two men, Lee Benson, an award-winning feature writer for the Deseret News, and Jim Parkinson, a noted attorney and author from Southern California, undertook a project to tell the Billy Casper story to the thousands who never knew it. And the title of their work says it all: The Big Three and Me. The aforementioned three happened to be golfers of their generation who were all household names: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player. Those three managed to garner most of the attention and soak up the spotlight, but all Casper did was win. And win a lot.
In point of fact, Casper's lifetime winning percentage ranks third highest in the modern era, behind only Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. On top of the three Vardon trophies (the lowest per-round average for the year on the PGA Tour), Billy was an eight-time Ryder Cup player, captained the victorious U.S. Ryder Cup team in 1979, and won 23 ½ points for the U.S. side -- the highest total ever for an American. When the PGA commissioned an exhaustive statistical analysis to settle on the best golfers in the tour's history, Billy Casper came in tied for fourth with Ben Hogan -- and behind some other very notable names: Sam Snead, Nicklaus, and Palmer.
But Billy was so much more than one of the game's greatest. His enlisting in the Navy and pursuing his professional golf career meant he never had the chance to complete his college education. But Billy was as well-traveled and cosmopolitan as anyone I have ever met.
My wife, Debi, and I had the privilege of accompanying Billy back to the institution which awarded him a golf scholarship in 1950: The University of Notre Dame. Although he never completed his freshman year, the Irish faithful welcomed Billy back to campus -- after 62 years! -- as if he were a conquering hero. His weekend schedule included meeting the current golf team, a private meeting with football coach Brian Kelly, dinner with university president Reverend John Jenkins, photographs with cheerleaders and countless fans, and book signings -- not to mention a seat on the 50-yard line for the Michigan game.
The memory I will always cherish, however, was when the Board of Trustees at Southern Utah University voted to award Billy an Honorary Doctorate of Public Service in May of 2013 for his myriad contributions and charity work. For being, as commentator Jim Huber once called Billy, "The Dalai Lama of Golf." I went to the airport to pick up Billy and bring him to campus. As he approached the TSA personnel to exit the concourse, one of the workers leaned over to me to comment on Billy's characteristic Augusta cap. He said, "Look -- that old man has a Master's hat on. Think he's ever played there?" I responded, "Not only has he played Augusta, he has a matching green jacket for winning there in 1970." In typical fashion, Billy greeted the worker with his endearing smile and infectious laugh.
Dr. Casper was feted the next day by the SUU community and finally received his long-coveted college diploma. I didn't fully appreciate just how much this meant to Billy until a week later when he invited me to play in his annual fund raiser on the course where he honed his skills and refined his inimitable putting stroke: the San Diego Country Club. As Billy greeted the tournament's participants, he proudly wore his new doctoral hood over this golf gear and trademark sweater vest. He was as proud of that degree as any championship trophy or tour victory. The tribute video on Billy's life and shown at the Commencement ceremony can be viewed here:
What a colossus of a champion Billy Casper was. He was truly a prince of man who will be sorely missed by all those whose lives he touched. Sadly, one of the greats has left us.