July 7, 2007

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

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

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.

A few years back Augusta was lengthened, and Gay Brewer and I shot some big numbers in the first round. The next morning I said to Gay, "If we shoot 42 on the first nine, let's pick up." I don't know why I chose 42. On the ninth hole, I got up and down for par out of the greenside bunker, and Gay three-putted for a bogey. He added up my score, I added up his, and darned if they both didn't add up to 42. We laughed, and we did walk in.

I played golf for 25 years before I made a hole-in-one of any kind. I was on the tour for years before it finally happened. Eventually I made 23, but boy, that first one was a long time coming. It was the price I paid for not shooting at every flag.

Tommy Bolt was the best ball-striker I ever saw, but his temper was every bit as ferocious as you've heard. I was playing with Tommy in Michigan one year when he flubbed a 4-wood shot from the rough. Then he wheeled and threw the 4-wood as hard as he could, where nobody was standing. A skinny post was sticking out of the ground about 30 yards from Tommy. The club wrapped around that post as neatly as if you were tying a bow. It stuck there, and that, combined with Tommy's rage, made me laugh so hard I couldn't play anymore. A hole would go by, I would picture the club around the post, I'd look over at Tommy, and I'd almost go to my knees. This was more than 40 years ago, and when I see Tommy, I still get tears in my eyes.

If your lie is too poor to hit a 4-wood, it's too poor to hit a 4-iron. Go with a 5-iron or less.

At Olympic in '66, Arnold led me by seven with nine holes left. He wanted the U.S. Open scoring record badly. I told Arnold I wanted to finish second—I was a couple of shots ahead of Nicklaus and Tony Lema—and Arnold replied, "I'll do anything I can to help you." I picked up a couple of shots early on the back nine, then two shots on 15, two more on 16 and another on 17. We're tied. On 18, Arnold lagged a long putt to within a few feet, leaving himself a tough little putt for par. He was partially in my line and asked what I wanted him to do. "Go ahead, Arnold, you're hot," I said. I wasn't being a smart aleck, it was just my answer. Anyway, he made it, we tied, and I won the next day in a playoff. Some say Arnold was never the same after that defeat, and I have to agree.

I had all kinds of allergy problems with certain meats, and with fruits and vegetables with pesticides. So I turned to bear, caribou, venison, hippopotamus, buffalo, elk and moose. Taste-wise, buffalo and elk are tied for first. Not gamy, and loaded with protein. And very expensive, I might add.

I played in the British Open only four times. The biggest regret of my career. The year I remember best was not 1968, when I almost won at Carnoustie. I remember 1971 better, because if I had missed the cut I would have left immediately for Morocco, where I'd gone many times to stay with my friend King Hassan II. It's a good thing I made the cut, because a coup was attempted the day we would have arrived. People were killed, and friends of the king were fair game. Claude Harmon, Butch's dad, was there, and he was forced to lie on the ground at the golf course for four hours while the insurgents conducted the coup. The king prevailed, and nine days later I went over. Playing well pays off in a lot of ways.

The practice tee is way overrated. On the whole, my advice is to play more and practice less.

I've never felt pressure on the golf course in my life. I felt pressure when I went to Vietnam to entertain the troops, though. One time we were in the back of a Caribou airplane, and the North Vietnamese were waiting for us. They opened up on the plane, and after we landed someone shot a picture of me inspecting the bullet holes in the plane. What scared me was, there were eight barrels of gasoline on board with us. If a bullet had hit one of those barrels, there would have been no use looking for the airplane, the crew or Billy Casper, because nothing would have been left. Now that was pressure.

What does hippopotamus taste like? Not surprisingly, it's very watery.