My Shot: Billy Casper

A winner of 51 tour events speaks out on the value of putting in the dark, hippo as an entree, and why he always wanted to be known as The Gorilla.

Billy Casper

Billy Casper, photographed Feb. 1, 2005, San Diego Country Club.

April 2005

Age 73 • Springville, Utah

I was 16 when I watched Ben Hogan play an exhibition in San Diego. He became my hero, and I built my career around his course-management principles. Between that and my own ability, I won 51 tournaments on the PGA Tour. I won two U.S. Opens and a Masters, played on eight Ryder Cup teams and captained another. I won the Vardon Trophy five times. If I had never seen Hogan play that exhibition, I might never have amounted to much in golf.

For a time my nickname on tour was The Gorilla. My standard ball flight with the driver was a fade, but it wasn't the type of fade that hit and stopped. It was a low line drive that ran like mad. Bo Wininger thought the ball bounced like a gorilla on the run. The Gorilla. ... I wish that would have stuck.

In my case, having a big family deflected a lot of the pressure other guys felt. I had a wife and 11 children. That's a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of futures to look after. So I thought about golf in financial terms. I never got caught up in playing for history, seeing how many majors I could win, or rewriting the record books. Those are selfish objectives, and the guy who chokes usually does so because he dwells on what it all means to him. I was only worried about my family. And although I had my share of failures, it was never because I choked.

My family has given me great joy. We've also had our problems. One of our sons, David, is in prison in Nevada and will be there the rest of his life. It's a sickening feeling. In my religion—I'm a Mormon—there's a saying: "No other success can compensate for failure in the home." Shirley and I have agonized over where we might have gone wrong with David. We gave all of our children the same opportunities, the same guidance, the same amount of attention and love. What happened with our David?

Not long after David was paroled after going to prison for the first time, I had a dream. In it, David was pacing outside our house. I said, "David, come, it'll be all right" and motioned him inside. He looked at me and said, "No, I'm going the other way." It was a vivid dream, the kind that promises something is wrong in real life. Soon after that, David went wild. He committed 35 felonies, including armed robberies, got caught after a confrontation with the police, and that was it for him. The day they took David off to prison, he left through a door with a small window. I remember looking through that little window and waving goodbye. Heartbreaking.

We'll never stop loving David, and he'll always be in our prayers. This is not an uplifting story. I don't tell it to sound a warning to others, but to provide some comfort to parents who are having similar difficulties with a child. They should know that it can happen to anyone. So parents shouldn't beat themselves up too badly.

I was at the Ryder Cup last year for a thing called the Captains Challenge. Former Ryder Cup captains stood on the tee of a par 3 and hit shots with the groups that came through. If the amateur hit it inside both captains, he got a new putter and a dozen balls. If he hit it inside one of us, he got a dozen balls. I drew Lanny Wadkins, and he was ruthless. He knifed one shot after another stiff to the hole. The poor amateurs, their shoulders sagged every time Lanny swung. He couldn't help himself—once a killer, always a killer.

Me, I knifed shot after shot into the water—on purpose. You've got to send a guy to the parking lot with a dozen balls, don't you? The way Lanny was bearing down, you'd think he paid for those balls himself.

Then I watched the Ryder Cup. On Friday I saw something that explained, in a nutshell, why we got beat. Tiger is playing with Phil, and on the 11th hole, a par 4, Mickelson is in the middle of the fairway and Tiger is in the right fairway bunker. Mickelson is farther away, and to my amazement he hit first, firing right at the flag. Now, why would Phil hit first in that situation? Tiger should have played first, tried to get his ball somewhere on the green from that difficult lie in the sand. If he succeeds, then Phil could/should go at the flag. It was Golf 101, and they failed.

The first time I played with Hogan we were with Fred Hawkins and Dow Finsterwald. After the round, Mr. Hogan looked at Fred and me. "If you two guys couldn't putt, I'd be buying hot dogs from you on the 10th tee." He was steamed, I think, because his putting was gone by then. The next morning, Mr. Hogan called me over. He looked around to make sure no one was within earshot. Then he whispered, "Billy, tell me: How do you putt?"

If your putting starts to go south, practice hitting short chips from just off the green. When you chip, you pay a lot of attention to making the ball roll perfectly end over end. Practicing that will make your putting stroke come back overnight.

Putting in the dark is the best thing I ever did for my game. On a pitch-black night, when you walk up to the hole just to see where it is, it stamps a very strong image in your mind. You develop a feel for everything: the moisture on the grass, the small change in elevation, the exact distance to the hole, all kinds of things your eyes alone can't tell you. Strangely, that sense spread to the game I played through the air, too. I got more out of those nights on the putting green than I ever did on the practice tee in broad daylight.

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