Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Billy Casper

It’s been a weird year on the PGA Tour. Several players have experienced major collapses on the final day of competition for the past three weeks in a row.  First, it was Kyle Stanley who blew a five shot lead at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines when he made an eight on the final hole of play. Stanley bounced back to win the following week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale when   Spencer Levin blew an eight shot lead.

Last Sunday at the AT&T Pebble Beach, Phil Mickelson shot a 64 and beat Charlie Wi (72) by eight shots during the final round to grab the win. It was the third straight week that the leader let a huge opportunity get away. But, believe it or not, professional golfers have been blowing big leads for decades. Even some of the greatest golfers of all time have seen monumental leads slip through their hands.

Case in point- Arnold Palmer at the 1966 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. This is a timely story as the U.S. Open returns to The Olympic Club this June and it will be the 45th anniversary of Palmer’s famous collapse or Billy Casper’s great comeback. I spent some time with Casper this week and it was an experience that I will soon not forget. Here’s the story. You be the judge.

Palmer entered the final round of play in 1966 with a three-shot lead. Arnie fired a front nine score of 32 during Sunday’s final round and saw his lead grow to a commanding seven shots with nine holes to play. If Palmer shot 37 or better on the back nine at Olympic, he would break Ben Hogan’s seventy-two hole U.S. Open scoring record of 276. The tournament was basically over.

“You could practically feel the energy generated by Arnold’s front nine. Every hole, the crowd got bigger- until it reached a certain critical mass and actually began to get smaller as some people, their views completely obscured, gave up and left the course for home so they could watch Arnie win on TV,” recalls Casper.

“I couldn’t leave, but was ready to place the U.S. Open crown on Arnold Palmer’s head as much as anyone,” laughed Casper. “At that point I was two shots ahead of Jack Nicklaus and Tony Lema and as we stood on the tenth tee about to start the final nine, I said to Arnold, ‘I would like to finish second.’”

“He answered, ‘I will do everything I can to help you!’” recalled Casper. It was a light hearted exchange with Casper acknowledging Palmer’s seemingly insurmountable lead and Palmer acknowledging that he would help Casper finish second by winning the tournament.

Even though Palmer bogeyed the tenth hole, both players traded pars on eleven and birdies at twelve. The lead was six shots with six to play. Palmer bogeyed the thirteenth and after both players made pars on fourteen, Casper trailed by five shots with four holes to play.

“Golf is a game of swings. But, I was really sensing that I was running out of time,” said Casper, who at 80 years of age has a keen memory of the ’66 Open.

“We both aimed at the flag on fifteen. My ball wound up thirty feet above the hole and Arnold was short sided in an adjacent bunker,” recalled Casper. “All week my putting had been solid, as had Arnold’s. The greens had gotten slicker than a parking lot and I had not three-putted once in the entire tournament.”

Casper made his putt and Palmer missed a twelve-footer for par after blasting from a bunker. The lead was still three with three holes to go. “At that point it was still just a prayer,” said Casper.

Arnold Palmer was a winner of seven major championships and forty-seven tournaments in 11 years on the PGA Tour. This was Arnold Palmer, not the aforementioned Kyle Stanley, Spencer Levin or Charlie Wi. The king of golf surely would hold on.

Palmer snapped hooked his drive on the 604-yard sixteenth hole. His ball wound up in the deep rough and it forced a bogey. Casper made a thirteen-footer for birdie and closed the gap to a single shot with two holes to play. On seventeen, Palmer again snapped his drive into the left rough. He beat it out with a wedge and made another bogey. Casper who also hit an errant tee shot managed to save par.

The tournament was tied with one hole to play. Casper had made up seven shots in eight holes, five shots in the last three holes.  Both players made par on the eighteenth and the stage was set for an 18-hole playoff the next day.

“As impressive as anything Arnold Palmer did in his career was the way he handled the press conference that followed,” said Casper. “Over the years I have watched countless heartbreaking losses at sporting events, live and on television. Sometimes the victims skip the press conferences or give surly one word answers.

“I think of Arnold that day at Olympic. He sat in the press room for over an hour and he took every question that was asked. When it was over, a USGA official asked if wanted to exit through a side door so he could avoid the crowds outside. Arnold said no, they way he played he deserved whatever they did to him,” said Casper.

On the eve of the playoff, Casper and his wife drove 40 miles north of San Francisco to a Sunday night fireside chat he had agreed to do for the Mormon Church. “A deal’s a deal. I got there an hour late and the place was packed,” remembered Casper. “It was after eleven o’clock when we got back to the house we were staying in. I hadn’t eaten since lunch. My wife grilled me some pork chops and I went to bed.”

The next day, Casper shot 69 and Palmer had 73. It was the second U.S. Open title for Casper who had won in 1960 at Winged Foot. While many will remember Palmer’s demise in 1966 at The Olympic Club, the numbers point to a great victory for Casper.

During that week, there were 440 rounds played at The Olympic Club. There were only 15 rounds under par- and Casper had four of those. Billy Casper won the Open, Palmer didn’t lose it. It was the third U.S. Open that Palmer had lost in a playoff and Arnie would never win another major in his career.

“When we walked off the eighteenth hole after the playoff, I told Arnold I was sorry,” said Casper. “I meant that. He shot 71 in the final round of the U.S. Open on Sunday and that should have been good enough for the win.

“You think of what you accomplished with a win like that and you can’t help but think of what you deprived the other guy from,” reflected Casper. “Well, anyway, that is the game.”

Just ask Stanley, Levin and Wi.   

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