Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 8, 2015

Two Who Helped Write The PGA Tour’s Story

A NOTE TO READERS: Due to some prior commitments next Thursday’s post is likely to be delayed until Friday. As always, thanks for reading.

The PGA Tour lost a pair of old timers this week. The passing of Billy Casper and the death of Charlie Sifford served as twin reminders that the history of the Tour is far deeper and more complex than casual fans realize. The story of the PGA Tour is about many more golfers than the familiar lineage of Hogan to Palmer, Nicklaus to Watson, and Norman to Woods. It is also a story in which not every drive was down the middle of the fairway.

Billy Casper, 83, died of a heart attack at his home in Utah on Saturday. Like many professionals of his time he fell in love with the game while working as a caddie during his youth; in Casper’s case at the San Diego Country Club near California home. After a decidedly brief stint at Notre Dame on a golf scholarship, he returned home to southern California to marry, and turned pro in 1954.

Casper’s first professional victory came at the Labatt Open in July 1956. Starting with that triumph and stretching over a period of almost two decades, he won 51 PGA Tour events, including the 1970 Masters and a pair of U.S. Opens. That places Casper seventh on the list of career Tour titles. The names ahead of him are all more immediately recognizable to the casual fan than is Casper’s: Snead, Woods, Nicklaus, Hogan, Palmer and Nelson. The accomplishment is even more impressive when one considers that among active PGA Tour pros only Tiger Woods (79), Phil Mickelson (42) and Davis Love III (20) have scored at least twenty victories; and only eight other current players have reached double digits in wins.

He was named to eight Ryder Cup teams, and his 23 ½ career points is the record for a member of Team USA. Casper won the money title twice, was names Player of the Year twice, and took home the Vardon Trophy, the Tour’s award for the golfer with the lowest stroke average for the season five times.

Casper was the most brilliant putter of his age, and was a master of the short game. His first major title came at the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. There on the club’s West Course in Mamaroneck New York he and the rest of the field faced the daunting par-3 third hole. At 216 yards the hole is a lengthy par-3 even by today’s standards. The green is long and narrow, with a pinched opening at its front guarded by bunkers on either side. Four days in a row Casper stood on the third tee and outfoxed course designer A.W. Tillinghast. In each round he intentionally laid up short of the green, relying on his short game and putting to get up and down. Casper recorded four pars on the third hole, and, after needing just 114 putts in 72 holes, won the tournament by one stroke.

His other national championship came seven years later across the country, when he caught Arnold Palmer in the final round at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, then easily won the 18-hole playoff. Trailing by 7 shots beginning Sunday’s final nine, Casper closed with a 32 on the home nine. There were just fifteen sub-par rounds recorded at the 1966 U.S. Open, and four belonged to Casper, who didn’t three-putt a green until the 9th hole of the playoff.

Yet that U.S. Open is remembered for Palmer’s collapse, not Casper’s comeback. For Billy Casper’s only shortcoming was that he lacked charisma. For all of his accomplishments on the golf course he lacked Palmer’s swashbuckling style and Nicklaus’s media savvy. In golf’s age of the Big Three, Palmer, Nicklaus and the globe-trotting Gary Player, Casper was often overlooked. What too many fans failed to notice at the time was that in the seven years from 1964 through 1970 Casper won 27 tournaments. In that same period of time Nicklaus won 25 times, and the combined victory total for Palmer and Player was 20.

Charlie Sifford’s PGA Tour resume is much less imposing than Billy Casper’s. Sifford won just two tournaments, the Greater Hartford Open in 1967 and the Los Angeles Open two years later. But then Sifford, who died on Tuesday in Cleveland at the age of 92, had to overcome a liability that Casper did not. For he was an African-American, and it was not until Sifford was approaching his 40th birthday that the PGA of America finally eliminated its Caucasian-only requirement for membership.

Much like Casper, Sifford learned the game while working as a young caddie, at what was naturally a whites-only country club in Charlotte, North Carolina. By his early teens he was breaking par on Mondays, the one day that caddies were allowed to play the course. After serving in the Army during World War II, Sifford came home with the dream of playing professionally.

But for most of his prime years that meant playing on the very few tour stops of the United Golf Association, the golfing equivalent of baseball’s Negro Leagues. Sifford won the UGA’s National Negro Open six times, including five consecutive victories from 1952 to 1956.

By the time the PGA’s heinous racial requirement was eliminated, Sifford’s prime years were behind him. Still he encountered plenty of hostility, including on-course slurs from fans and death threats delivered in the mail. But Sifford always recalled a 1947 meeting with Jackie Robinson, in which the man who broke the Great Game’s color barrier had told him that he couldn’t be a quitter if he was to have any hope of achieving his goal.

Charlie Sifford was no quitter. As Lee Elder, who became the first African-American to play in the Masters in 1975 said in an interview many years ago, “It took a special person to take the things that he took: the tournaments that barred him, the black cats in his bed, the hotels where he couldn’t stay, the country club grills where he couldn’t eat. Charlie was tough and hard.”

Golf lost two greats this week. In remembering Billy Casper we fans are reminded that to fully appreciate the game we should always take time to look beyond the headlines. In mourning Charlie Sifford we acknowledge the reality of the game’s distant but still ugly past; and hail the lonely pioneer who unflinchingly changed it; and in doing so made the Tiger Woods era possible.

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