Sunday, February 8, 2015

Billy Casper

Billy Casper passed away Saturday at the age of 83. He was one of the finest gentlemen in the history of the game and one of the sports’ most underrated players. His record speaks for itself. Fifty-one PGA career wins ranks him seventh all-time. He won two U.S. Opens and one Masters. He won at least one tournament a year from 1956-71 which was a record exceeded by only Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Casper played on eight Ryder Cup teams and his 23.5 points are the most won by an American player. He also served as Captain in 1979 at The Greenbrier when the U.S. beat Europe by a score of 17-11.

Casper’s greatest victory came in the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco when he entered the final nine holes seven shots behind Arnold Palmer. Let’s hear the rest of the story in Casper’s own words from a 2012 interview I did with him for a previous story.

“I’d played the front nine in 36, one over par. I was still the closest of anyone in the field to Arnold, but that wasn’t saying much. I was seven shots behind with nine holes to play.

“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. I couldn’t leave, but I was as ready to place the U.S. Open crown on Arnold Palmer’s head as anyone. 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’d like to finish second.’

“He answered, ‘I’ll do everything I can to help you.’

“It was a light-hearted exchange; mine an acknowledgement of his commanding lead and his an acknowledgement that of course he’d help me finish second- by finishing first,” said Casper.

Over the next couple of hours, Palmer’s game unraveled and Casper slowly but surely picked up ground and eventually made up the seven-shot deficit. It was one of the most incredible comebacks in the history of the U.S. Open. Both players were tied after 72 holes and an 18-hole playoff would begin the next morning at 10:30. Casper picks up the story.

“As impressive as anything Arnold Palmer did in his entire career was the way that he handled the press conference that followed. Over the years, as I have watched countless heartbreaking losses at sporting events, live and on television, and sometimes seen the victims of those skip out on press conferences or give surly one-word responses to the media, I think of Arnold that day at Olympic,” said Casper.

Dan Jenkins was covering the U.S. Open for Sports Illustrated and on Sunday he told me the following.    

“I just remember how pissed off Arnold was (mostly at himself) and yet how sportingly he held it in. As I just tweeted this morning, nobody during Casper's peak years ever wanted to copy any part of his game, but all he did was win tournaments and finish high. If anyone ever came close to hitting as many fairways and greens as Hogan, it may have been Billy,” said Jenkins.
“I watched that last nine holes and I still can't believe what I was seeing. Most of us in the press were rooting for Arnold, of course, and rooting for him to break Hogan's 72-hole record. Arnold did confess later that he was thinking more about breaking the record than making sure he won the championship. 

Arnold took that loss real hard, but I'm not among those who thought he never got over it. He went on to challenge and came close to winning the PGAs of '68 and '70,” added Jenkins. 

And Casper saw it the same way, “For almost an hour they grilled Palmer about this shot and that shot and this decision and that decision. He sat there and took it until the last question was asked. When it was over a USGA official asked him if he wanted to exit by a side door so he could avoid the crowds out front. ‘Naw,’ he said, ‘The way I played, I deserve whatever they do to me.’”

After the press conference Palmer and Casper went their separate ways. Palmer went to a friend’s house in the city and had a quiet dinner. Casper previously agreed to do a fireside chat at a Mormon meeting house approximately 40 miles north of San Francisco. Little did Casper know when he agreed to do the fireside chat that he would be involved in an 18-hole playoff the following day for the U.S. Open. 

“A deal’s a deal. I changed and drove straight to the church, arriving almost an hour late. The chapel was full. No one had left. I can remember the length of every putt and exactly what club I hit on every shot that Sunday, but to this day the most I can remember about that fireside chat is talking about my trip to Vietnam. But I must have said something mildly interesting because it was after eleven o’clock when the meeting ended,” recalled Casper.

Casper returned to the house where he was staying in San Francisco. He hadn’t eaten since lunch. His wife, Shirley, turned on the grill and he had a midnight dinner of pork chops, green beans and salad. Then, in his own words, “I went to bed and slept like a man with nothing to lose.”

On Monday Casper fired a 69 compared to Palmer’s 73 to win the U.S. Open title. For his efforts, Casper won $25,000 of which he gave 10% to the Mormon Church. A forgotten stat from the ’66 Open is that there were only 15 rounds under 70 the entire week and Casper had four of them.
Only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have a higher percentage of Wins and Top Ten Finishes per start than Casper. Only Woods (8) has more Vardon Trophies than Casper (5). Many would place Casper among the ten best golfers in history. 

More importantly, he is considered to be one of the finest men ever to play the professional game. He and Shirley raised eleven children. The Caspers devoted their lives to their church, family and others who needed help. That is how Billy Casper would like to be remembered.    


Monday, February 2, 2015

Confessions of a Yipper

His name is Doug and he admittedly suffers from the chipping yips. Doug would not have guessed that he would ever be mentioned in the same sentence with Tiger Woods. But, he is now. After his latest display of chipping at the Phoenix Open it’s obvious Woods suffers from these chipping yips.

Bill Harmon, brother of Butch who taught Tiger in his heyday, told me this, “He (Tiger) DOES have the chipping yips. I also think he has the yips with the driver. Fear will make anyone ordinary. When a golfer is unsure of and fears impact around the greens it’s a totally different game.”

Harmon would know. He is recognized as one of the game’s top teachers whose stable of students includes Bill Haas. There is no more respected family of golf instructors in America than Bill, Butch and Craig Harmon all schooled by their legendary father, Claude.

“There are very few pros who don’t think that Tiger has the yips around the greens. The first step in solving the problem is admitting that you have a problem. That is not a weakness, but a strength,” said Harmon. 

“I don’t buy all of this release stuff. In the last two events that he has played in he had the two worst cases of yips I’ve ever seen from a tour pro and this coming from arguably the greatest short game player ever. I’ve had (and sometimes still do) the yips pitching. I know what it is when I see it. It will be interesting to see where he goes with it because as he said, he’s doing it in a public forum,” concluded Harmon.

Woods has never been public about anything. We won’t hear an admission that he is battling the yips in any form. It will be about perfecting his technique and changing his swing. Any admission of the yips by Woods would be a humanizing consolation from a player who has made a career from intimidation. An admission would be a weakness.

Enter Doug, the average golfer who suffers from the same disease. We can gain insight from him. Doug and Tiger share the same mental demons. When Doug first encountered the yips it was on the putting green. He was a two handicapper at the time. The yips soon crept into his chipping.

“There was no doubt that it started with the putter and then moved to the chipping within two years. It was gradual. I ‘chili dipped’ a few chips. I moved the ball back in my stance and then started hitting it everywhere,” recalls Doug. “The feeling I have is that my right hand fires way too soon which causes me to lose control of the club.”

Doug talks openly about the anxiety associated with the yips. There is a paranoia that takes over the body and the brain. Yippers know the results before the shot has ever been hit. He tried changing clubs and using different techniques. Doug found a longer stroke with a higher lofted wedge to be better.   

“I try to be positive. When I get over the ball bad thoughts creep into my mind,” says Doug. “My brain sends me a signal and says don’t embarrass yourself. After a while it becomes almost humorous. You do things like putt from 20 yards off the green. It puts more pressure on the rest of my game. I can’t miss greens and if I short-side myself it’s over.

“I know how to chip. It’s the mental lockup where the brain is anticipating something bad. It can happen with any club. I am willing to try anything. Most people don’t want to talk about it. My buddies will look away at times like they think it’s contagious,” admitted Doug.   

Most long-time golfers have experienced the yips of some form in their careers. I had a bout with the putting yips ten years ago. In two tournaments I missed four putts inside 18-inches. I will never forget the feeling that I had standing over those short putts. I literally could not feel my hands and arms below the elbows.

I sought the help of another teaching instructor who recommended that I position the trademark facing the sky and the number left, or forward, for a right handed putter. He told me to never take my eyes off the number through the stroke which promotes acceleration. It took so much concentration to do that, I couldn’t think of anything else- including the negative thoughts. It worked for me and today I consider putting the strength of my game.    

When the USGA proposed the ban of the anchored stroke, Rule 14-1b, the focus was on putting. To the credit of the USGA those presentations also addressed chipping and the fear that players would also start using devices or instruments to combat chipping woes. The publicity centered on putting, but chipping was in the discussion. I never bought into that, but I do now given the fact that the most high profile player in the game now has the chipping yips.   

Said a respected USGA source, “Yes, we were very much focused on chipping at the time. Our concern was that the challenge of the game is to control the club during the stroke and that the use of an anchor in any stroke changed that challenge. We were concerned that the traditional stroke could be displaced in both putting and chipping. The concern related not merely to the putter, but also to use hybrid clubs from off the green. Hence, the new Rule was purposefully made part of Rule 14 and not part of Rule 16.”

When asked what advice Doug, now a 6-handicapper, would give Tiger he said, “I watched the highlights from Phoenix and it looked like the chipping yips to me. Far be it from me to offer advice to best ever. But, hopefully he doesn’t have the yips because practice won’t cure it. The anxiety creeps in when I play with my buddies or in club events.

“It’s when it really means something that the yips take over. Maybe Tiger will beat it. If he does it would be helpful if he would bear his soul and tell all of us how he did it. Hey, you know Jones, Hogan and Snead all had the yips in some form. Tiger shouldn’t be embarrassed to say it.”
His name is Doug. He suffers from the yips and he is not afraid to admit it.