William Earl “Billy” Casper” died this past Feb. 7. In memory of the Hall of Famer and his 1970 Master’s win, we reprint this column from 2006.
There are stories from the year’s first major golf tournament which stay with you forever if you have ever loved the game of golf. One of the best that has withstood the test of time was when Gene Sarazen (born Eugenio Saraceni) hit “The shot heard ‘round the world” in the 1935 Masters. It was a final round 225-yard four-wood on the par-five 15th hole that went in, giving him a very rare double eagle two on the hole, and led to him later winning the tournament in a playoff.
Augusta National over the decades has given its fans tales of impossible shots leading to improbable victories, and heartbreaking collapses followed by maddening thoughts of what might have been.
My experience going to the great tournament came in 1999, when on Sunday, Jose Maria Olazabal capped Greg Norman’s eagle with one of his own on No. 13. Norman was doomed again when his bogey on 14 knocked him out of the lead for good, while Olazabal went on to wear a second green jacket.
That year must seem like forever ago to David Duval, who was then the hottest player on the planet and ranked No. 1 in the world; he finished 6th that year. Seven years later, it took me awhile to find Duval’s current ranking at 433. It’s a cunning and baffling game.
There are also memorable stories that come from outside the ropes, and I heard one after this year’s tournament. Dabbs Cavin from Little Rock and his son Will, who’s 11, were at the tournament for Saturday’s round. Dabbs was there because of his mother Sylvia Vandover’s persistence for so many years in applying for tickets. I’ve known Sylvia and Dabbs all my life. She was the one that actually got me interested in the game by taking Dabbs’ older brother Trey and I out to the Burns Park golf course when we were Will’s age.
Anyway, that Saturday morning Dabbs and Will were walking around and ran into friend Mike Blanchett, who agreed to give them a tour of the clubhouse.
They eventually made their way upstairs to the heart of the Club, where the Grill and locker rooms are. The Grill is where the Champion’s dinner is held on the Tuesday night during tournament week. After looking inside the locker room, Mike pointed out a closed door nearby and said, “I can’t take you in there because that’s the locker room for Master’s champions only.” Just as he finished saying that, the three heard an elderly voice coming from the stairs saying, “Well, he might not be able to take you in there youngster, but I sure can.”
The old gentleman came over, put his hand on Will’s shoulder and led him through the hallowed door, leaving dad and tour guide behind.
Inside, the man pointed to a locker and asked Will to read the name on the brass plaque. “Jack Nicklaus,” came the boy’s excited reply. He pointed to another locker where Will read the name of Arnold Palmer. They also saw those of Woods, Player and Snead.
When they came to the locker the man called his favorite of them all because “this locker belongs to me,” Will read the name of the last Master’s champion who won it in an 18-hole playoff, against Gene Littler in 1970, and had also included in his 51 PGA tour victories two U.S. Open titles, the second of those coming in 1966 when he was seven shots down with nine holes to play against Arnold Palmer, forcing a playoff and winning the next day.
Will looked at the plaque and slowly read the familiar last name first – “Casper.”
Then the great old golfer and family man, who had raised 11 children of his own, put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and led him back out into the hallway of mortals.
He looked down at his young guest and offered him a hand. Will took it and said, “Thank you, Mr. Casper.”
“You’re welcome, Will,” Billy Casper said, grinning back at him before turning and walking away.
Jay Edwards is editor-in-chief of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.