SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
July 14, 1969
Midway through the 1969 season professional golf's most enigmatic figure is—as usual—a leading money-winner and is—as usual—searching for the real Casper
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 14, 1969

Has Anybody Here Seen Billy?

Midway through the 1969 season professional golf's most enigmatic figure is—as usual—a leading money-winner and is—as usual—searching for the real Casper

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Billy Casper bent his fingers carefully around the shaft and turned to address his gallery. "You'll notice that I use a Vardon overlapping grip," he remarked in that dry, pedantic clubhouse voice. Then, leaning back and using his arms like pulley ropes, Casper emitted a most ungolflike grunt—and drew a furiously thrashing, 150-pound striped marlin to the surface.

Casper was doing his other thing—fishing—and doing it with the same degree of devotion that he brings to his golf game. As the marlin rolled in exhaustion after half an hour's fight on 20-pound-test line, Casper cut the leader and watched the lean, silvery-blue shape fade into the deep. "As far as I'm concerned," he said, "that kid was a double eagle."

The field of battle was as remote from a golf course as Casper could get—which is precisely why he loves fishing. He was trolling off the bleak, desiccated tip of Baja California, that austere appendage of western Mexico where the billfish throng like alewives and an angler is guaranteed an aching back. Casper's gallery, clustered in various degrees of sunburn on the flying bridge of the 60-foot diesel yacht Martian, included Dr. Marshall Persky, the Casper family pediatrician; Dr. Charles Franklin, the family obstetrician; Captain Ernie Horn, skipper of the Martian and an old fishing buddy of Billy's; and Misael Vargas, a Mexican deckhand whose knowledge of golf only slightly exceeds his understanding of Chinese opera ("You say Se�or Casper is good putter? What is puttering?"). There was generous applause as Billy boated and released his fish. Mike Vargas even yelled: "Nice feesh, Se�or Putter!" Billy beamed. "I hope t'shout it is. How you like that for patience and humility?"

Aha! At last a breakthrough on the Casperian emotional front. Finally a crack in the bland clay face. This had to be the real Billy Casper talking, revealing himself as a man subject to pride as are the rest of us. He did indeed revel in victory; he was indeed possessed of a sense of humor! His saintliness, his Mormonism, his freaked-out diet, his clean mouth and cleaner living habits were only a cover—a control—on his essential humanity. Or were they?

For five days I'd lived with Billy Casper, and tried to live like him. No cuss words and no booze; no coffee, tea or Coke. I dined on the famous diet, washed it down with glasses of lukewarm bottled spring water and slunk off to the bathroom for a postprandial smoke. I shared long hours of prayer and fasting, and even longer hours of Sunday night TV. Through it all, I had one thing in mind: Billy Casper just can't be as controlled as he appears.

He isn't. Like any other man, Casper is colored by the light from the sparks he strikes. Not all golf fans were dismayed when Billy blew the Masters earlier this year. The tour's most successful exponent of play-it-safe golf had lost because of his own conservatism, and conservatives don't attract many frenzied followers in sport. Mr. Short-Shot lost his lead and became Mr. Also-Ran. Casper's clubhouse remarks in front of national-television cameras sounded like a kind of cop-out: "I'm proud to have finished second." Yet most listeners didn't hear Billy's real brag—that he had retrieved three of the five bogeys he had shot on the front nine, and had ended just a stroke behind the winner. It may well be that the lump of pride Billy Casper swallowed that day contained more spiritual vitamins than any "Oh, pshaw, t'warn't nothin'!" victory statement.

Let me be an advocate. William Earl Casper Jr. is not a machine; he is an existential contradiction. That may well be the only working definition of the human condition. A millionaire on his golf earnings alone, Casper is so austere in his personal life that by contrast a Franciscan monk looks like a swinger. Phlegmatic to the point of dullness (one acquaintance calls him "a walking ad for ennui"), Casper is nonetheless so sensitive to everything from natural gas to apples that he develops agonizing allergies to them. Fanatically committed to discovering everything about the few human activities that interest him, he is virtually innocent of book learning, political opinion and musical or artistic taste. He is a man whose inner drive and self-discipline would make even Vince Lombardi appear a bit of a softie, yet a man who can coo and burble over babies with near-feminine abandon. He is a saint with the instincts of a savage—or maybe vice versa. In short, he is a fascinating human being beside whom the simpler psyches of an Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus fade toward clich�. Yet there is no Casper's Army. There isn't even a Casper's Cadre.

Any of the golf fans who put him down—and oh how they put him down—can recite Casper's credentials: twice winner of the U.S. Open (1959, 1966); PGA Player of the Year (1966); among the top four money-winners in 10 of his 14 years on the tour and a good bet to be there again in 1969 (halfway through this season he has won $79,000 and is ranked fourth.) and, most significant of all, five times winner of the Vardon Trophy, which goes to the golfer with the lowest scoring average of the year. Any golf fan could also tell you about Billy's wizardry with the putter, and about the exotic "wild meat" diet with which he combated his allergies and changed his physique from blimplike to merely bean-shaped. But what the golf fan cannot tell you about is quintessential Casper—the enigma wrapped in anomaly who transcends golf and ends up a metaphysician. To see that Billy Casper, one must live like Billy Casper.

Casper's home, in the dusty hills of Bonita, Calif., just southeast of San Diego, is a cool, roomy Spanish-style stucco house that once belonged to the Spreckels sugar family. The decor, however, is somewhat saccharine: subdued upholstery on overstuffed furniture, a few decorative oils and watercolors, trophies and loving cups and plaques honoring Billy's prowess on the links (including a tragicomic bronze clown's head for his participation in the 1968 Comedians' Golf Classic), a bright Aeolian piano mounted with the sheet music for hymns, sacred songs, Christmas carols and Mary Poppins . Of books there are few. Nixon's Six Crises stands cheek by jowl with the Life Nature Library. There are a number of Mormon works reflecting the Caspers' overwhelming preoccupation with the religion to which they converted (from Congregationalism) just three years ago. There is also a restored Brunswick-Balke-Collender pool table, built about 1885 and presented to Billy a year ago for his 37th birthday. And then there is the kitchen.

Since everyone in the Casper home (save the cook) is on a modified version of Billy's anti-allergy diet, all eyes are turned constantly toward the refrigerator. Mounted on the door are two mottoes. The topmost reads: "Discipline easily shades into courage, responsibility, devotion, faith, steadfastness and serenity." Beneath it, as if to ease the conscience of an errant midnight snacker, another (titled "Growth") advises: "To have failed is to have striven. To have striven is to have grown." Those growing in the Casper domicile—hopefully more in spirit than in girth—include Billy's wife Shirley, 34, daughter Linda, 14, sons Billy, 12, and Bobby, 8, plus three infants adopted by the Caspers over the past year. Byron Randolph Casper, 1�, named for Byron Nelson and Dr. Theron Randolph, Billy's allergist, is a husky hell raiser, even in Dr. Denton's and a playpen. Judy and Jenny, 14-month-old twins who have adapted to the Casper competitiveness by tugging at one another's ears and hair, are as pretty a pair of living dolls as can be found outside an Ivory soap commercial. Also resident are a pair of young family helpers. Anne Moffett, 24, is a winsome, black-haired girl from Belfast, Northern Ireland, a Mormon convert who met the Caspers three years ago while Billy was competing in the Piccadilly World Match Play championship in England. "At first I was afraid of Brother Casper," she recalls. "So dour and quiet he was. But now I can see his great strength of soul." Jerry Elwell, 23, of Ontario, Calif., was serving his Mormon missionary duty near London when Casper met him. An aspiring golfer, Jerry introduced himself and later, when he developed a mysterious allergy similar to Billy's, was invited to live with the Caspers as a boy-around-the-house. A tall, lean, likable young man, Jerry studies at San Diego State and plays on the golf team there. Much to Shirley Casper's matchmaking pleasure, Jerry and Anne were married three weeks ago.

Continue Story
1 2 3