SI Vault
Alfred Wright
November 28, 1966
The biggest issue at the Houston tournament was not so much who won—Arnold Palmer did—as it was whether Casper could hold off Nicklaus and emerge as golf's leading money-winner for 1966
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November 28, 1966

Billy Survives The Face-off

The biggest issue at the Houston tournament was not so much who won—Arnold Palmer did—as it was whether Casper could hold off Nicklaus and emerge as golf's leading money-winner for 1966

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A couple of years ago, an ordeal such as Casper was going through at Houston, with his entire year's achievement seemingly hanging in the balance, would have had cataclysmic repercussions. An enormous storm cloud would have formed over his head, and people wisely would have avoided him. As it was, he contemplated his performance, particularly that of the third round which was ragged enough to upset a deacon, with startling equanimity. This remarkable transformation in his personality and attitude he attributes entirely to the two key developments of his career—his new health and his new religion.

Until midsummer of 1964, Casper was a roly-poly fellow whom people often mistook for being jolly fat, though his spirit was moody thin. Then came the allergy tests and, eventually, the diet, and his weight dropped from 220 to 165. His health and his disposition improved in inverse proportion to his weight, but his stamina did not.

After about a year on the diet, Casper discovered that many of his allergies were beginning to disappear, and during the past eight months he has gradually started to eat a great many of the foods—eggs, wheat, various starches—that had been proscribed. "I have had to eat like mad," he says, "to get back the weight I needed." Some of his colleagues, who are unaware of what has recently been going on with the diet, still make little jokes when they catch Bill nibbling a salami sandwich or some other grubby object, but he has his weight back to 180, where he would like to keep it.

Meanwhile came the conversion to Mormonism on January 1st of this year. This rather extreme development put the finishing touches on the new Casper. When Bill attends a golf tournament these days, only part of his week is devoted to his profession. At Houston, for example, he spent Tuesday evening at the Brae Burn Country Club, where his old friend, literary collaborator and host, Don Collett, is the home pro, conducting a Mormon "fireside." The following evening he did the same thing at one of the local Mormon wards. Frequently Casper will arrange such meetings three or four times during the course of a tournament week.

"Before my wife, Shirley, and my two older children and I were baptized in the church," Casper explains, "I felt a void in my life. I kept wondering: What is the overall plan? Now I know that if I can devote myself to God and lead a godly life, I can eventually find a way back to the celestial kingdom with our Heavenly Father. By talking to other people about my experiences in life and how they relate to the Gospel, I have developed an inner strength and a peace of mind that I never felt I had before and doubt that I ever would have had. Now I feel that I have spiritual goals that are even more important than my materialistic goals, and that golf is not the most important thing in the world."

A completely uncontrived example of Casper's convictions is to be found in the schedule he arranged for himself for the week following Houston. Even if the tournament had ended with Nicklaus in a position to overtake Casper as the year's leading money-winner with a victory at this week's Cajun Classic, Bill intended to skip the Cajun. He had already made arrangements to appear at several church meetings, and he had no intention of canceling these commitments to achieve a materialistic goal, even one he wanted so badly.

Nicklaus, in his own way, approached the Houston championship with an almost equally rigid set of standards. Last month he bypassed the $57,000 Hawaiian Open even though he was in the area that week en route from Australia to the Canada Cup matches in Tokyo. "The way I look at it," Jack reasoned as the Houston event began, "if you can't be the leading money-winner by following the schedule you have set for yourself, you shouldn't make it at all. I figured I needed a week off at the time of Honolulu, and I wasn't going to rush frantically from tournament to tournament at the last minute just to be leading money-winner. However, I might go to Lafayette next week, if I'm just a few thousand dollars behind Casper. I figure if you're that close, you ought at least to take a shot at it." "Listen, Jack," joked Gardner Dickinson. "What you ought to do is contribute $100,000 or so to the Cajun purse, and then go win it."

The incentive to win the title might not have been quite as great for Nicklaus as it was for Casper, because Nicklaus had already owned the honor for the past two years, and, as he has indicated, he does not think that earnings should be the only basis for determining the year's leading golfer. "I feel," he said at Houston, "that the difference between official and unofficial money is confusing, and most people don't understand it. Also I would prefer it if we were on some kind of a point basis, more or less like the Ryder Cup points or the Masters points—so many points for winning and on down the line, with all tournaments counting the same no matter how big the purse."

Like Casper, Nicklaus was having his difficulties with the Champions course during the week when so much was at stake. Laboring away on the practice tee late Saturday afternoon following a third-round 70 that left him in a tie for 13th and only two unhelpful strokes ahead of Casper, Jack ruminated on his problems. "I don't know what happened to my swing," he said. "I just suddenly got positioning myself wrong and swinging terrible. Part of it might have been the small ball that we were playing in Australia and Tokyo, but suddenly, on the last few holes at the Canada Cup, I started making some really horrible swings. The problem has stayed with me all through the three rounds that I have played here, and I've just been trying to keep the ball in the fairway any way I can. The funny thing is I haven't been missing many fairways. But my swing is awful."

Driver in hand, Nicklaus then proceeded to hit some lovely shots with the help of a few suggestions from Butch Baird, one of the younger pros on the tour. "Boy," said Jack, "I wish I'd had that swing out there today. Well, maybe it will stay with me tomorrow. I'll need it." But the next day the good swing had vanished once more.

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