From afar, Billy Casper was always a tough guy to figure, which in part explains why he remains the best golfer of the modern age who never got his due.
On the course, his velvet touch and steel will were overlooked because of his passionless manner. Off it he had a chilly, imperious manner that didn't square with the reality that he and his wife had 11 children, six of whom were adopted.
His victory 25 years ago at the Masters isn't remembered as the crowning achievement in the career of a player who won more PGA Tour events than anyone except Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson. Rather, he's lumped in with five other noncharismatic winners from the late 1960s and early '70s: Gay Brewer, Bob Goalby, George Archer, Charles Coody and Tommy Aaron.
"I guess people really didn't know what to think about me," says Casper, who made his 37th start at Augusta last week, but missed the cut.
Today, even at close range, Casper remains a mixed bag who eludes easy labels. At 63 he has a fleshy face anchored by some all-world jowls, but his narrow, crystalline eyes still have a lean and hungry look. His voice is the same measured and sonorous one that always sounded pretentious at trophy presentations, but when he's among friends, it is often set off against a startlingly high-pitched giggle.
The giggles were coming in bunches as Casper got on a nostalgic roll recently in the dining room of the San Diego Country Club in Chula Vista, Calif. Surrounded by men he has known for decades, some of whom he caddied for at this very same club half a century ago, Casper pointed through a picture window to the area of the 2nd tee. It was there, Casper said, that he and a motley crew of fellow caddies and golf bums used to hit their first shots on a cross-country hole that stretched four miles through Chula Vista to the now defunct Chub's Pool Hall.
"Through the lemon orchards, across the houses, into downtown, over the library, down the alley, through Chub's backdoor and off the spittoon," said Casper, cackling and clapping his hands. "Oh, we had fun. You know, I always have."
The last phrase was Casper's way of both acknowledging and refuting his image. Compared with his more heroic rivals, Casper seemed a sullen doughboy of a singles hitter, a master of the unmanly art of putting who was all the more annoying because he would complain when he missed. At the peak of his powers in the latter half of the '60s, Casper got less attention for his play than he did for his allergies, his conversion to Mormonism and his oddball diet of buffalo meat and organically grown vegetables, which dropped his weight by 50 pounds to 170. What's more, Casper did the unforgivable—he crushed the confidence of golf's greatest hero, Arnold Palmer, with an impossible comeback victory at the 1966 U.S. Open in San Francisco.
All these factors have conspired against a proper appreciation of Casper's career. He had 51 Tour victories, ranking him sixth on the alltime list (11 wins ahead of seventh-place Walter Hagen and Cary Middlecoff). Yet in his prime, Casper was overshadowed by Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player, who were marketed as the "Big Three" by superagent Mark McCormack in the early '60s. From 1964 to 1970 Casper won more tournaments, 27, than any of them.
"There should never have been just the Big Three," says Johnny Miller, whom Casper took under his wing in Miller's rookie year, 1969. "It should've been the Big Four. That was an absolute crime."