GOLFING legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have led tributes to three-time major winner Billy Casper, whose death at the age of 83 was announced on Saturday.
Casper, who won the US Open in 1959 and 1966 and the Masters in 1970, claimed 51 PGA Tour titles in total between 1956 and 1975 to sit seventh on the PGA Tour’s all-time victories list.
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The 75-year-old Nicklaus, who won a record 18 major golf titles in his career, said on his Facebook page: “I have said many times that during my career, when I looked up at a leaderboard, I wasn’t just looking to see where a (Arnold) Palmer or a (Gary) Player or a (Lee) Trevino was.
“I was also checking to see where Billy Casper was. Billy had tremendous confidence. He just believed in himself. You knew when you played against Billy Casper, Billy would not beat himself.
“You want to talk about someone who could perform under pressure, if you wanted someone to get up and-down for you, Billy Casper was your man. I think it is fair to say that Billy was probably under-rated by those who didn’t play against him. Those who did compete against him, knew how special he was.”
Player added: “I played a lot with Billy, and I always thought Billy had a wonderful short game. The way he managed the golf course – he had tremendous course management, which not a lot of people talk about.
“They talk about elongating, but that’s not what wins golf tournaments; it’s a great short game, the kinds of games we see with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
“They are not good drivers of the ball and yet they’ve been No 1 and No 2. Billy had a great short game, managed the course well and he was always a thorough gentleman.”
Six-time major winner Lee Trevino added: “I met Billy when I first went out on Tour and found him be an absolute delight as a gentleman, along with his wife, Shirley. And I knew all his kids. But most of all, I looked at his game.
“At the time I came out on the PGA Tour, they had the Big Three, Gary (Player), Arnold (Palmer) and Jack (Nicklaus). I actually thought in that era, Billy Casper may have been the best player.”
In any other era, Casper might have commanded more attention than he did.
His 51 PGA Tour victories place him in seventh spot on the career list behind only Sam Snead, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson, but he was overshadowed by the “Big Three” — Palmer, Nicklaus and Player, whose rivalry sparked a revival in golf in that era.
Casper’s three major championships include the 1966 US Open, one of golf’s most remarkable comebacks. He rallied from a seven-shot deficit on the back nine at Olympic Club to tie Palmer, and he beat him in an 18-hole play-off. Three years ago, when recalling that victory, Casper said: “I watched Arnold play such magnificent golf on the front nine. I really felt that he was going to win the tournament. I had checked the scoreboard and I found that I was two shots ahead of Jack Nicklaus and Tony Lema, and so I wanted to finish second and informed Arnold of that. And he said, ‘I’ll try to do everything to help you’.”
Casper, a genius with the short game and considered on of golf’s best putters, also won the 1959 US Open at Winged Foot and the 1970 Masters. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1978.
He won the PGA Tour money title twice, was player of the year in 1966 and 1970, won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average five times and still holds the American record in the Ryder Cup for most points. He played on eight teams and was the winning captain in 1969.
Casper passed away “quickly and peacefully” said his son, Bob, with wife Shirley at his bedside. They had been married 62 years.
He had passed out in the clubhouse at the Masters last year, had work on his heart and recovered from a bout of pneumonia over Thanksgiving. His son added that Casper was going to cardio rehab for the last four months and was doing well until he started to feel unwell in the last week.
More than golf, Casper was devoted to family. He had 11 children, six of them adopted, and became a Mormon just as career was taking off.
“Everything became easier,” he said in 2012. “I began to live much more for others, and my life fell into balance.”