NEW YORK – Billy Casper, one of professional golf’s top players for two decades and winner of three major U.S. tournaments, has died. He was 83.
He died Saturday at his home outside of Salt Lake City, according to a statement from Billy Casper Golf, the course-management firm he co-founded. The cause was a heart attack.
“I think it is fair to say that Billy was probably underrated by those who didn’t play against him,” 18-time major tournament champion Jack Nicklaus was cited by AP as saying. “Those who did compete against him knew how special he was.”
Renowned for his steady shot-making and masterful putting game, Casper won the U.S. Open in 1959 and 1966, and one Masters, in 1970. His 51 PGA victories put him seventh on the all-time list of winners of the Professional Golfers’ Association of America.
Casper’s comeback win at the 1966 U.S. Open was especially storied. He made up seven strokes on the last nine holes to tie Arnold Palmer for the lead in the last round. In an 18-hole playoff the next day, Casper came from behind again to beat Palmer by four strokes.
Casper kept a lower profile than his three main rivals of the era, Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player. His win totals and reputation on the tour were in the same league as theirs.
“The subtle perfection of his performance never sets a gallery on edge,” Sports Illustrated reported after he beat Palmer.
In a combined forward to Casper’s 2012 autobiography, “The Big Three and Me,” Palmer, Nicklaus and Player wrote that “there was another player who was winning as often as we were, a player we kept an eye on and worried about just as much, if not more, than each other. His name was Billy Casper. It could have been the Big Four.”
William Earl Casper Jr. was born on June 24, 1931, in San Diego, California, according to Marquis Who’s Who. His father was an itinerant laborer who found work at dairy farms and mines. His mother, Isabel Wilson, was just 17 when his parents married. She later found work at the phone company.
Casper’s father mowed a cow pasture on the family farm in Silver City, New Mexico, to set up three golf holes. Casper hit his first five-iron shot there when he was 4 years old, he wrote in his memoir.
His mother and father divorced when he was 12. Casper often spoke about how his parents were not much interested in child-rearing.
“It was a Huck Finn sort of existence,” he said, according to a 1969 Sports Illustrated profile. In contrast, Casper openly cooed over babies “with near feminine abandon,” the profile said. Casper and his wife had five children and adopted six more.
Casper caddied while a student at Chula Vista High School in San Diego, then joined the Navy, where he operated driving ranges and golf courses for sailors, he wrote in his memoir.
He joined the PGA tour in 1955 and won his first tournament, the Labatt Open, in 1956. He road-tripped between competitions in a Buick Roadmaster towing a trailer home, courtesy of his sponsor, a San Diego car dealer who took 30 percent of his winnings in return, he wrote.
In his early days, Casper hardly appeared to be an athlete, weighing well over 200 pounds and suffering mood swings, he wrote. On the advice of his doctor, who in 1964 diagnosed multiple allergies, Casper took up an unusual diet that included organic vegetables and a rotating menu of game meats, including bear, whale and hippopotamus. He dropped more than 50 pounds, he wrote.
Casper and his wife, Shirley, became Mormons and raised their burgeoning family in rural Utah. He ran a charitable foundation, Billy’s Kids, and had nine wins on the Champions Tour, for golfers over age 50.
In 1989, he co-founded Vienna, Virginia-based Billy Casper Golf, the largest owner-operator of golf courses, country clubs and resorts in the U.S., according to the statement and the company’s website. Casper served as a senior adviser to the firm at the time of his death.
His survivors include his wife, the former Shirley Franklin, whom he married in 1952, and their children Linda, Billy, Robert, Byron, twins Judi and Jeni, Charles, David, Julia, Sarah and Tommy. He also is survived by 71 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, according to the statement.
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