Mickelson matters but Casper's shadow still looms

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2021 U.S. Open / Torrey Pines
Posted on
June 14, 2021
M. James Ward in
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
US Open - Billy Casper's shadow still looms
Left: Billy Casper celebrating the 25-foot putt that ignited his comeback playoff victory against Arnold Palmer for the 1966 U.S. Open title at the Olympic Club
Right: basking in cheers from a Ryder Cup gallery at Royal Birkdale in 1965

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes


SAN DIEGO, CA. Phil Mickelson's record setting win at age 50 in the PGA Championship just a few weeks ago shed considerable light on Lefty's resurgent golfing career and with the U.S. Open Championship being played in his hometown this week at Torrey Pines the golfing world will turn its attention to the city that's served as home to some of the finest players who ever picked up clubs.

Interestingly, while many might presume Mickelson is San Diego's finest golfer of all-time, the name Mickey Wright certainly deserves placement for that lofty perch given a superb career that included 82 LPGA wins, 13 major championships and possession of a golf swing lauded by the likes of Ben Hogan.

Lost in the discussion is another San Diego golfer often undervalued for the hefty record of accomplishments he generated over his long career.



Billy Casper began his golfing career as an 11-year-old caddying at the San Diego Country Club. Earning a golf scholarship from Notre Dame, Casper spent one semester at the school before returning to San Diego. He turned pro in 1954 and the first of 51 PGA Tour wins followed in 1956. Three years later in 1959 Billy would go on to win the first of his three major championships. At the center of that performance at storied Winged Foot was putting prowess of the highest order -- just 114 times during the 72 holes

As Casper's golf career was taking off so were other chief competitors. Among them was golf's "big three" -- Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Casper was the odd man out as the aforementioned trio were skillfully managed and marketed by Mark McCormack of IMG. But what many need to realize is that between 1965 and 1970 Casper won 27 times on the PGA Tour -- two more than Nicklaus and six more than Palmer and Player combined.

Casper's Mormon faith showcased a man confident in his overall abilities but not needing to shout from the highest roof tops touting the caliber of his play. Nicklaus himself freely admits that Casper's name always got his attention when the two were battling for various titles.

Ask many people who has won the most Ryder Cup points from the USA in the history of the event and it's likely you will get answers ranging from Nicklaus, Palmer, Lee Trevino or even Tiger Woods or Mickelson. Not so. Casper played in eight matches and earned 23.5 points. He also Captained the squad's victory in 1979.



But the most defining win of Casper's career had him in the role of spoiler to Palmer's shining star. The 1966 U.S. Open was played on the Lake Course at the renowned Olympic Club in San Francisco and Palmer was in solid form for 63 holes. With just nine holes to play Arnie commanded an imposing seven shot lead. Even Casper believed he was just hoping to finish as runner-up. However, Palmer's lead evaporated and he needed to make a twisting six-foot putt at the 18th just to ensure a playoff the next day. Casper would trail early in the playoff but quickly overcame the deficit and would join a select list of 22 golfers who have captured America's national championship at least twice.

How consistent was Casper? Five times winner of the Vardon Trophy -- demonstrating the lowest scoring average over the span of a season. More importantly, Casper went 16 consecutive years with at least one PGA Tour victory (1956-1971) - second only to Palmer and Nicklaus with 17.

Capping off Casper's career was a win at Augusta in the 1970 Masters. Billy would don the green jacket after overcoming fellow San Diego golf standout Gene Little in an 18-hole playoff.


US Open - Billy Casper's shadow still looms
Left: With President Bill Clinton and Gary Player in 2013
Right: trying on his green jacket with help from George Archer after winning the 1970 Masters

Among the other major championships Casper would earn three runner-up finishes in the PGA Championship and although he played only five times in The Open Championship, made the cut in each along with two top ten finishes.

When reaching age 50, Billy would play for a short time on the present-day Champions Tour securing nine wins including two senior majors. Most notably a playoff win over Rod Funseth for the 1983 U.S. Senior Open title. -- becoming one of only seven golfers to have successfully won both titles in a career.

Casper's game was never flashy -- just always in the mix and possessing a putting stroke that could strike at any time with ruthless efficiency. In many ways Billy's golf game proved the old golf axiom -- it's not how you drive but how you arrive.

The 103rd U.S. Open this week at Torrey Pines will celebrate the return of Phil Mickelson to the golf course he grew up playing as a child. The memories of the first U.S. Open played at Torrey Pines in '08 will also be remembered for the epic event it was with Tiger Woods winning the championship while playing on a broken leg.



Billy Casper could well be the most underrated player in the modern era of golf. Little will likely be said about him this week but when matters counted Casper showed a resilience not to be deterred and never to be discounted.

San Diego has a rich golf history and the legacy of its contribution to golf will be front and center when Mickelson reaches the first tee on Thursday's opening round. No one knows better than Phil the trajectory he is on was paved by those that came before him. Billy Casper will most certainly be alive in spirt when the U.S. Open comes back to his beloved home town.

Yes, Casper was often overshadowed by the celebrity of others at the top of the golf pecking order but was rarely outplayed for long. A true Hall-of-Famer both on and off the course.

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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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