The Big Three And Me
In the summer of 1955, fresh off a stint in the United States Navy, Billy Casper left his hometown of San Diego, California, to join the pro golf tour. He was 24 years old, married, with a young daughter and not a dime to his name. The new Buick he was driving and the house trailer it was pulling had been purchased by his two hometown backers, who in return would get thirty percent of everything Casper won, according to a contract drawn up on a napkin at the San Diego Country Club before he left. They don't start legendary golf careers like that anymore.
In The Big Three and Me, Billy Casper's just-released autobiography, professional golf returns to its romantic, and considerably thriftier, roots – before the PGA Tour evolved, as Casper writes, "from house trailers to jets."
The life story he details is a road trip of simple beginnings that, like the Tour itself, reached unimagined dimensions. Both went from rags to riches. Casper's history is golf's history. When he drove down Magnolia Lane to play in his first Masters, he shook Bobby Jones' hand. In his final Masters, Tiger Woods was the winner.
He tells of his humble start, born in the throes of the Great Depression to teenage parents who later divorced. He barely saw his father and namesake after he turned 15, but it was William Earl Casper who put a golf club in Billy's hands when he was four years old and steered him toward the three homemade holes William Earl and his brother Virgil had laid out in their father's New Mexico pasture. From there a self-made star was set loose.
He grew up Oliver Twist-like in San Diego, saved by the country club down the street and Shirley, the pretty girl he meets in high school who becomes his wife and lifelong supporter and protector.
Modeling his game and comportment after the stoical Ben Hogan, Casper tells of joining a pro tour with the likes of Sam Snead, Jimmy DeMaret, Lloyd Mangrum, Tommy Bolt and Hogan himself still teeing it up.
But the old guard soon gives way to a younger breed led by another golfer who joined the PGA Tour towing a trailer in 1955: Arnold Palmer.
Casper's descriptions of Palmer, and his shot-by-shot account of their legendary showdown at the 1966 U.S. Open, where Casper made up a seven-stroke deficit on the final nine on Sunday and then won in the next day's playoff, serve as the focal part of the book. Too, he pays special attention to Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, the other members of the legendary "Big Three" that he battled toe-to-toe with throughout his career.
Also prominent in the narrative is his lifelong friendship and rivalry with fellow San Diegan Gene Littler, one that culminates in Hollywood-fashion with their playoff at the Masters in 1970.
Casper writes candidly about the allergies that nearly drove him off the golf course until he found relief in, among other things, buffalo meat; about the decision to leave agent Mark McCormack that cost him millions; and about joining the Mormon Church in the prime of his career.
The book's prologue and epilogue, written by family friend and advocate James Parkinson, eloquently makes the case for Casper's golf greatness, detailing his 51 victories, the seventh most in PGA Tour history; his five Vardon trophies, the second most in history; the U.S. record 23 ½ points he scored in eight Ryder Cup appearances as a player, and his two U.S. Open titles and one Masters championship. Alongside those numbers, Parkinson poses the question why Casper's career has largely gone unsung, particularly when compared to the attention heaped on The Big Three. And in a remarkable Foreword, The Big Three—Palmer, Player and Nicklaus—ask the same thing.
Casper never poses the question himself. He's just happy to report that after his first three years on the pro golf tour, he paid off those San Diego backers in full and stopped giving them thirty percent of everything he won. After that, it was all gravy.