CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Fifty years ago, Billy Casper checked in at Carnoustie Golf Links as – to steal an accolade used ad nauseam by today’s TV broadcast personalities – the “hottest golfer on the planet.”
At this juncture of the 1968 season, Casper had won four times. He would finish ’68 with six victories, four more than anyone else on Tour that year.
He didn’t win at Carnoustie. The Claret Jug went to Gary Player, who will formally hold court with the media on the eve of this year’s Open, to share memories of the second of his three victories in golf’s oldest major. Rest assured that Player, 82, also will seize the opportunity to pontificate about the state of the game, if not the world in general.
Casper, who died in 2015, didn’t share Player’s self-promotion gene. That partially explains why Casper, with 51 career victories – No. 7 on the all-time list – ranks as golf’s all-time most underappreciated competitor. The Big Three of Casper’s era – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Player – rightfully should have been the Big Four. Nicklaus once suggested as much, writing that “the name Bill Casper stood right up there alongside Arnie’s and Gary’s as far as I was concerned.”
Casper finished fourth in the ’68 British Open, three shots adrift of Player’s 1-over 289 and one behind Nicklaus and Bob Charles. Palmer, for the record, tied for 10th.
Not only was the field that year presented with the longest Open links to date – 7,252 yards – but it also had to contend with gale-force winds off the North Sea. Player effectively secured his title with five holes to play, when at the famed “Spectacles” par 5 he hammered a 3-wood into the teeth of the wind, clearing the daunting Spectacles bunkers and leaving himself a 2-foot putt for eagle.
Casper led the field after 36 holes, posting a tournament-low 68 in Round 2. He followed with a hard-fought 74, which was good enough for the 54-hole lead. But Casper was a relatively short hitter who relied on his deft short game and extraordinary putting touch. This was his first British Open, and the grind of links golf under such trying conditions surely wore him down. His closing 78 got him nowhere.
Given the fickle nature of golf and the quality of competition, pro golfers take some measure of satisfaction when they’re in the hunt, if not the winner, as Casper was in many weeks in ’68. In addition to his six victories and fourth-place finish at Carnoustie, he posted nine other top-10s, including a playoff loss in the season opener. Casper didn’t miss a cut all season, and he made PGA Tour history by breaking the $200,000 barrier in season earnings. He won the last of five Vardon Trophy titles, with the Tour’s low scoring average of 69.82. He wasn’t honored with the Player of the Year award for 1968 because there wasn’t one. Tour players were squabbling over independence from the PGA of America, which chose not to recognize a POY.
As for Casper’s place in golf history, and the argument for a Big Four, consider:
• If you define the Big Three era as 1962, when a pudgy 22-year-old named Nicklaus knocked off five-time major winner Palmer at the U.S. Open, through 1974, when Player scored two of his final three major victories, Casper was arguably the equal of Palmer and Player. He posted 35 PGA Tour victories compared to 54 by Nicklaus, 35 by Palmer and 16 by Player.
• Casper’s 51 career PGA Tour victories trail, in order, Sam Snead (82), Tiger Woods (79), Nicklaus (73), Ben Hogan (64), Palmer (62) and Byron Nelson (52). Walter Hagen (45), Phil Mickelson (43) and Cary Middlecoff (40) round out the top 10.
• Casper holds the record for most career points scored by an American Ryder Cup player, with 23½ in eight Ryder Cups. Palmer was right behind with 23 points in eight Ryder Cups; Nicklaus had 18½ points in six events.
• Casper won the U.S. Open in 1959 and 1966, most notably overcoming Palmer’s seven-shot lead with nine holes to play, then besting Palmer in a playoff in ’66. (Casper didn’t have a three-putt in 90 holes.) He won the 1970 Masters, beating Gene Littler in an 18-hole playoff. Nicklaus has won the most major championships, 18; Player notched nine; Palmer seven.
• It’s noteworthy that from 1964 to 1970, Casper won 27 PGA Tour events – two more than Nicklaus and six more than Palmer and Player combined. (But let’s give credit where credit is due: Player won at least 18 times on South African and Australian tours during that span.)
• Casper also won at least seven times overseas, although the status of some international tournaments (and a handful of PGA Tour events, frankly) during his era can be sketchy. Player, of course, is the undisputed king of globetrotters, claiming at least 96 noteworthy international victories (not including team events), most in his native South Africa. Palmer generally is credited with 10 international victories, and Nicklaus with eight.
Granted, there’s much room for debate on the Big Four question. Nicklaus, Palmer and Player all had outsized influence on golf as promoters of the game, course architects and brand endorsers.
Point is, there’s much more to Billy Casper’s legacy than an eponymous golf course management company. Fifty years ago, he was – forgive me – the hottest golfer on the planet.
Dave Seanor is at Carnoustie for his 19th British Open, including the past eight as a member of the R&A’s media team. He covered 11 Opens as editor of Golfweek magazine.