Golf

Rivals remember inaugural Doral winner Billy Casper

Billy Casper attends the Pro-Am round of the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich. Casper, a prolific winner on the PGA Tour whose career was never fully appreciated in the era of the “Big Three,” died Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015, at his home in Utah. He was 83.
Billy Casper attends the Pro-Am round of the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich. Casper, a prolific winner on the PGA Tour whose career was never fully appreciated in the era of the “Big Three,” died Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015, at his home in Utah. He was 83. AP

Golf recently lost one of its finest players in Billy Casper. Few people in South Florida — only those whose memories go back a long, long way — are aware of his link to the area.

Casper was the inaugural winner of the Doral tournament in 1962 when it was called the Doral Country Club Open Invitational. For that triumph, Casper earned $9,000.

Some 53 years later and after numerous name changes of the Doral tournament, golf’s best professionals will be descending on Doral on March 5-8 for the prestigious World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship, and this year the winner will walk away with $1,530,000. The purse for the entire field will be $9,000,000.

The man who started it all at Doral was officially William Earl Casper Jr., who at age 82 died of a heart attack Feb. 7 in Springville, Utah.

Off course, he never went by his formal name because he was one of the friendliest players on the PGA Tour — just call him Billy. Or call him Buffalo Bill, the nickname given to him by his fellow golfers because he had a penchant for eating buffalo meat.

On the course, Casper came pretty close to turning the Big 3 — Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player — into the Big 4.

And that’s one of the reasons all of the Big 3 felt compelled to comment upon Casper’s passing.

▪ Nicklaus: “I have said many times that during my career, when I looked up at the leaderboard, I wasn’t just looking to see where a Palmer or Player or a Lee Trevino was. I was also checking to see where Billy Casper was.”

Then Nicklaus added, “Golf was never the most important thing in Billy’s life — family was.”

▪ Palmer: “Billy was one of the true gentlemen of the game and a great competitor. He was a much better player than most give him credit for.”

▪ Player: “We lost an amazing man. He was always a thorough gentleman.”

How good was Casper as a player?

Plenty good.

His accomplishments include 51 PGA Tour victories (seventh all time), making 20 holes-in-one, winning three majors (the Masters in 1970, and two U.S. Opens, 1959 and 1966). In 1966 and 1968, he was the tour’s leading money-winner.

He competed on eight Ryder Cup teams, each of them victories by the United States. And to complete his Ryder Cup success, he became captain of the team, and the United States won under his direction.

After winning that inaugural Doral event in ’62, Casper repeated the feat again in 1964. Who did he beat? He edged Nicklaus by one shot. However, probably his most famous match came against Palmer in the ’66 U.S. Open, when Casper trailed by seven shots with nine holes to play. He rallied to force a Monday playoff, and in the playoff Casper was quickly down by two strokes. He came back to defeat Palmer by a shot.

So, when this year’s Doral tournament tees off and the golfers are traipsing the Blue Monster, they should take time to look back and be aware of the tournament’s history and its meager beginnings, and then they should look upward and say thank you to William Earl Casper Jr.

FOWLER IN HONDA FIELD

Rickie Fowler, the 12th-ranked player in the world, committed to play in the Honda Classic Feb. 26-March 1 on the Champion Course at PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens. A year ago, Fowler finished in the top five of all four majors.

The Honda tournament now has commitments from 16 of the top 25 players in the world, including No. 1 Rory McIlroy.

Noticeably absent so far from the field is Tiger Woods, nursing an injured back and an errant game.

Players have until approximately 5 p.m. Friday to commit to the tournament.

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