(Editor's note: This story is a first-hand account, written by Dr. Rick Parkinson, a physician who makes his home in Provo, Utah. Parkinson shares details of his four-decade relationship with Billy Casper and a heartfelt, never-before-told story that Casper relayed to him involving Arnold Palmer and the 1966 U.S. Open.)
“Billy,” I said, “I’m afraid there’s no cure for your amyloidosis.”
Without a second thought he said, “Ah, then it’s like the yips.”
This clever wisecrack was classic Billy Casper, and I wasn’t at all surprised that he would make a good-natured joke out of such bad news. After being his doctor and golf buddy for almost four decades, nothing he said or did surprised me.
“So, Doc, how much time have I got?” he asked.
“Years, I hope,” I responded.
“But it could be day-after-tomorrow.”
“You are 80 years old,” I reminded him.
“Do they know what causes it?”
We were in my office. It was late in the afternoon on Dec. 13, 2013, and Billy was my last patient. I always made sure that he had the final appointment of the day since I loved our visits and didn’t want to be rushed. That day, however, as we focused on his diagnosis, he quickly switched from his affable pro-am persona to being tournament sharp.
“I want the details,” he said emphatically. “And don’t dumb it down.”
I explained to him that for unknown reasons an abnormal protein was gumming up his tissues, and that eventually his organs would shut down. After asking many probing questions, and following a long, thoughtful pause, he said, “Rick, I’m not ready to check out just yet.”
“Then don’t,” I implored, reminding him, “you’ve got more control over this than you know.”
The next thing he muttered, almost to himself, was, “At least not until I talk to Arnie.”
What? He learns he’s dying, and the first thing on Billy’s bucket list is to talk to Arnold Palmer? I knew this could get interesting. So, I let it hang in the air like a lofted wedge, and sure enough, it got interesting real fast.
“I owe him an apology … long overdue,” Billy said.
“An apology,” I repeated, and then prodding ever so gently I asked, “It’s been eating at you?”
“You want to talk to me about it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe this is something that belongs in our book,” I floated as a thought bubble. The book was his biography, an important project for Billy, which I’d promised to help him with. As it turned out, my brother Jim, whom everyone calls Moon, ended up writing it, and it’s a good thing since he’s a fine writer and he got the big picture right.
The book is called “The Big Three and Me,” and it makes the compelling case that while Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were big, it should have always been the Big Four. The record books prove it, and his competitors knew it. My favorite quote in the book is attributed to Nicklaus who said, “Billy Casper is the one I feared the most. Period.”
After mulling it over he said, “In the book? Hmm. That would be up to Arnold, I guess.”
What followed was like a 10-minute weather delay that found my friend visibly buffeted by his memories and his conscience. Eventually, he said, “What do you know about the ’66 Open at Olympic?”
“Not much,” I admitted.
“Do you happen to know who won?”
“Pathetic,” he scoffed, shaking his head.
Of course I knew Billy won, but this was fun. Billy enjoyed needling his friends, but he was also a good sport when the tables were turned.
“Do I get another guess?”
Abruptly shifting into baby talk he said, “Little ole me, that’s who won.” What followed was a shot-by-shot account of one of the most storied tournaments in the history of the game. Here in his own voice Billy hits the high points and the low:
“In 1966, my game was really in good shape. I’d had a successful year so far. I was ready to play, and I got off to a very good start. And, of course, Arnold and I were tied at the end of 36 holes.
“We were paired together the third round. He played exceptionally well. He shot even-par 70, and I struggled and got around in 73, and that was the difference in the scoring going into Sunday.
“The last day he played very, very well on the front nine. He was out in 32 and I was out in 36. Arnold led me by seven with nine to play. He wanted the U.S. Open scoring record badly. I told Arnold that I wanted to finish second. I was a couple of shots ahead of Nicklaus and Tony Lema. And Arnold replied, ‘I’ll do everything I can to help you.’
“I picked up a couple of shots early on the back nine, then two shots on 15, two more on 16, and another on 17. We’re tied. On 18, Arnold lagged a long putt to within a few feet, leaving him a tough putt for par. He was partially in my line and asked what I wanted him to do. I said, ‘Go ahead, Arnold, while you’re hot.’
“Anyway, he made it, we tied, and the next day I won in a playoff (Casper 69, Palmer 73). When I putted out, he came right over and he was so gracious in saying, 'Congratulations, Billy.' But you knew it just tore him up inside. And as we walked off, I put my arm around his shoulder and said, ‘Arnold, I’m sorry how it turned out.’
“He should have won the Open. And I shouldn’t have said what I said.”
Billy slowly got up from his chair, walked to the window, took his time looking down at the Provo River before asking me if I’d fished along the cottonwoods lately. I told him that I’d caught two rainbows the week before and he said with a sigh, “I don’t fish or golf anymore. Now that’s pathetic.” He sat back down, cleared his throat like he was trying to get a divot down, and said, “Some say Arnold was never the same after that defeat, and I’d have to agree. I still think about it. Every day.”
“You never discussed it with him?” I asked.
“No,” he said, fidgeting with his watch. “It’s complicated.”
“Saying you’re sorry isn’t complicated,” I shot back.
“You’ve done harder things,” I persisted.
“Look, Doc, I hurt the man, and I swear that I had no intention of kicking him when he was down. But who’s going to believe me?”
And just like that, our visit was over.
After walking arm-and-arm to my front door, we shook hands, hugged, and I wished him good luck. He thanked me and shuffled away. I told my nurse that I needed a few minutes, so I went back to my private office and jotted this down: Did Billy just hand you the hook for the book that you’ve been looking for?
Billy’s wisecrack to Arnold so long ago was not out of character. What was out of character was how long he’d held onto it. You’re going to make bogeys was his life’s philosophy, so forgive and forget. As far as anyone could tell he walked the walk and was a great example of a man at peace with the world and himself. However, the fact that four decades later he was still troubled by his smart-ass remark to Palmer seemed to undercut the impression of a man with a clear conscience. I smelled a story here much more important than the run of the mill sports biography I had envisioned for our book.
While never claiming to be a saint, Billy was a remarkably good man. Most unusual for a celebrated sports figure was the fact that he was the same man wherever he found himself, which was all over the globe. Unaffected by his fame, instead he used it to great advantage while visiting our wounded troops, children’s hospitals, drug rehab centers, Native American outposts – you name it – and he was there supporting every worthy cause that came calling. His tireless giving, according to one of his biographers, was fueled primarily by the unabashed pleasure he took in the company of others. A gimme for biggest heart on Tour.
Particularly in his later years, Billy’s public life was a kind of pilgrimage, finding him reaching out and touching people wherever he went. Watching him work a practice range was, as the late golf writer Jim Huber said, “like watching the Dali Lama.” He shook hands, held hands, hugged, cajoled and consoled. He listened, laughed and lingered, always having time for his fans, his friends and just causes. Every photo got snapped, every hat got signed. At the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in 2012, a sharp-eyed reporter watched Lee Trevino sign 25 pin flags in the same time Billy Casper signed one book.
To meet Billy was to fall, not so much under a spell, but into his arms, which is how he disarmed folks and opened them up. It wasn’t unusual to see someone he’d just met shed tears while saying goodbye, to watch them touch his arm or his broad shoulders before he moseyed down the range to make one more friend before the sun went down. Nor is it overstating the case to say that Billy Casper had a spiritual, life-affirming, and lasting effect on others, be they presidents, or, as he liked to say, “even lower.”
On April 8, 2014, Tuesday at the Masters, he was seated at his usual clubhouse table just off the first tee when Jay Haas approached and said he had someone he wanted Casper to meet. He then introduced Clebe McClary, a man in his 60s with one arm and a black patch over his left eye.
As Jim McCabe wrote in Golfweek, McClary was a Marine fighting in Vietnam in ’68 when a battlefield explosion nearly killed him. He was airlifted to a military hospital in Japan, where, when he came to and realized he’d lost his arm and eye, he lost his desire to live.
As McClary told McCabe, “I wanted to die, and I’d have died right there if not for him.”
Casper was in Japan in 1968, giving free exhibitions to entertain and cheer up the U.S. troops. When the famous golfer approached McClary’s cot, McClary explained, “He put his arm around me, leaned in and said ‘God could use you today. Don’t give up.’ Then he thanked me for what I had done for our country and said, ‘God bless you.’”
It was enough to keep the Marine alive.
He recovered, returned to his home in South Carolina and got on with his life. He thought often about the man who encouraged him that day in Japan, but, a non-golfer himself he had no idea who Casper was.
Then one day in 2013, he struck up a conversation with a man who was staying next door at a house on Myrtle Beach. The man was Jay Haas.
McClary told Haas the story from 1968 and asked if he had any idea who that golfer might have been. Haas not only knew who that golfer might have been, he knew where he’d be in April.
When Haas reunited McClary and Casper at Augusta, it was 46 years since they’d last met.
As Lee Benson recounted in his moving obituary, “They hugged for a five-full-minutes, while Casper whispered, ‘Don’t let go until you want to let go.’”
“You never know what effect you’re going to have on another human being,” McClary said to the curious onlookers who had gathered around.
And then there was the other side of Billy, the roll-your-eyes and shake-your-head side, the side that Palmer saw on the final hole of the ’66 U.S. Open.
You could argue that Billy was a tease and never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings. But the painful truth is his wisecracks were often spot-on, outing someone’s most vulnerable truth or insecurity. No one was exempt. I’ll admit I was dumbfounded and hurt when he told me I played too much golf to ever be a really great doctor. We were walking down the second fairway at Pebble Beach, and I’d just taken a call from my office back in Utah. It was a sore spot with me, medicine being my lawfully wedded wife and golf being my mistress, but he was spot-on.
One pleasant summer evening as Casper was strolling through his neighborhood, he ran into his friend, Dr. Glen Griffin, who was a great physician. Billy blurted out, “Of all the people who live around here I dislike you the least.” This ass-backward way of looking at the world is a window into Billy’s one-of-a-kind mind.
Among his close friends and associates, Casper’s quirks and wisecracks were legendary. From his diet of buffalo meat to his conversion to Mormonism, from his family of 12 to his baby talk, Billy blazed his own path. And while he sometimes made others uncomfortable with his comments, he was never uncomfortable being himself.
Regardless of where we played golf – at Cypress Point Club or a muni in a small town in Idaho – Billy would go up and down the range meeting people, making friends, telling jokes and giving tips. Once, at PGA West, he ran into Oscar Meyer, who was in his late 80s. When he called us over, Billy introduced us as the “Three Big Wienies from Utah,” and then lectured Oscar on the dangers of eating red meat.
As I sat in my office that day back in 2013, I began to think the unthinkable, and wondered if Billy had innocently popped off to Arnie without thinking, or if there was something more to it. Could he have been trying to psyche Palmer out? Casper was, after all, a cold-blooded competitor, and all his peers knew it.
While trash talk is expected in other sports, and required in some, it has never had a place in golf. If Casper was looking to gain an advantage over Palmer by throwing down on him, that would be bad enough. It would have been much worse, however, if he was consciously trying to humiliate Palmer, the King, in what is such an honorable game.
History shows that Palmer made the knee-knocking 4-footer to force a playoff. But what if Palmer had missed the putt? I turned off the lights in my office and played with this idea for a while.
Arnie, of course, would never have brought up Billy’s cocky put-down, win or lose. By contrast, if a hot microphone had picked up Casper’s words, the golf world would never have stopped talking about it. Sports writers would have said that Palmer had choked, and in response, Arnie’s Army would surely have mustered troops to heckle Casper over every make-or-break shot for the rest of his career.
Casper’s impulses and quirks were, I believe, in his DNA, causing occasional cringes among his friends, but contributing no doubt to his success on the golf course.
Egos can be a big problem among golf’s champions, particularly when they are no longer in the headlines. With that in mind, I wrote one last sentence down that night before going home: If Casper can offer a heart-felt apology to Palmer without screwing it up with baby talk or some off-the-wall remark, if he keeps his ego in check, we’ll have a final chapter worth reading.
Would Billy find the courage to reveal himself, warts and all, to his old friend and rival? Or would he take the chance of offending Arnie all over again by suggesting that he had derailed Palmer’s brilliant career by one thoughtless remark.
For Casper, it was all coming down to summoning the courage to confront the lesser angels of his nature, to come to terms with his weird and hurtful side, and to answer the timeless question: Who am I? As much as I admired Casper, I had my doubts that he’d do it in time.
Two weeks later I called my brother, Moon, and asked him if he’d be willing to write the Casper biography. “What’s up?” he asked.
“I’m looking at my first two chapters, and they stink,” I told him.
“Send them to me. They can’t be that bad.”
“No. I’m out. I don’t have the vision or the drive to do it.”
My wife had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer, and I wasn’t ready to talk about it.
Moon, a big Casper fan, and an accomplished writer, quickly agreed to give it a shot. I gave him Billy’s number, told him I’d help in any way I could, and wished him luck. I did not tell him Billy’s secret, and as it turned out, Billy never told the real story to anyone other than me.
When Moon called a few weeks later he already had the title for the book, and a firm grasp of Casper’s career. “'The Big Three and Me.' What do you think?”
“I like it. It reflects Billy’s modesty.”
With disbelief in his voice, Moon exclaimed, “And it’s a dig at history – sports writers, fans, sponsors, all of them who missed the big story. The guy wins five Vardons, crushes the competition for over 10 years during his prime, and he’s practically ignored. It’s unbelievable.”
“He’s quirky,” I said.
“[Joe] DiMaggio was quirky. [Muhammad] Ali was quirky,” my brother shot back.
“There’s quirky and then there’s quirky,” I responded.
“Maybe. But I think it’s all about the majors. He didn’t give a sh*t about them, dodged most of them during his heyday, and consequently missed out on the marquee TV coverage and big endorsement deals.”
“The majors are major, little brother,” I told him.
“That’s helpful, big brother. Ciao.”
And with that from my brother, we signed off.
Six months later, Billy called to tell me the good news that he and Moon had completed a first draft of his biography, they had a publisher and were planning a barnstorming book tour. I asked if it was a tell-all.
“Pretty much,” he answered somewhat evasively. “You’re going to love it. Your brother did a great job. No one else could have done it.”
“We’re going to hit the (U.S.) Open and the Masters next year,” Billy said.
“Are you going to talk to Palmer,” I asked him.
He hesitated before answering, “If he shows up.” Billy knew that Palmer was not in the best of health at the time.
“I hope you two get a chance to visit.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see.”
As a physician I’m trained to look for signs, and this was not a good one.
In responding to a few questions Moon had for me as he was doing a final polish on his manuscript, I went back to some documents I’d compiled for my research and ended up rereading what I’d learned about the ’66 U.S. Open and all the hoopla leading up to it.
Despite the fact that he won the U.S. Open seven years earlier at Winged Foot, Casper got comparatively little ink, compared to Palmer. He wasn’t treated like an underdog; it was more like he didn’t have a dog in the fight.
This all played out years before Tiger Woods was born, but Woods took note of the injustice, the absurdity of it, at a news conference the week before the 2012 U.S. Open, once again held at the Olympic Club. Tiger was asked, why Olympic, the place where Ben Hogan and Tom Watson also lost Opens, was so hard on favorites and so kind to underdogs.
Woods stared-down the reporter before answering with the utmost contempt, “Do you know how many tournaments that man who just left the stage won in his career?” Casper, who by then was sitting in the back of the room, only smiled.
During the buildup to the ’66 Open, there was another superstar who wasn’t giving the press much credit either, and that was the pre-tournament favorite, Arnold Palmer. He knew better than anyone that you ignored Billy Casper at your peril.
It was no secret that Casper’s success was due in part to his reputation as a fearless tactician. Regarding nerves, he often said that he had never been nervous on a golf course. Later amending this boast, he admitted that he’d gotten so nervous caddying for his son, Billy, in Q-School, that he came down with a nasty case of shingles and had to travel back home and go straight to bed. “It’s the only time in my career that I walked off a course in a tournament,” he later said.
As for Casper’s course management, he had no equal. Perhaps the most famous example of his cunning was his game plan for winning the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. The par 3, 217-yard third hole vexed the field all week. Not only was it hard to hit, but the green sloped severely from front left to back right and it was difficult to two-putt. Casper laid up in all four rounds, took heaps of crap for doing it from sports writers and fans alike, but walked off with four pars and won the championship by a single shot.
Once at Spanish Fork Golf Course, the one and only course that Casper designed, Mike “Radar” Reid, a fellow Tour player, noticed that Billy’s 7-iron was worn down like a bald tire.
“I use it regularly,” he answered. It was a misleading understatement if ever there was one.
Casper was considered the best putter of his generation, maintaining it was because as a kid he played for nickels against the other caddies at San Diego Country Club, putting in the dark.
“That’s how you develop feel,” he’d tell you with a wink.
As good as he was on the greens it was his 7-iron that really set him apart.
“It’s simple,” he explained. “I’ve mapped out every course on Tour, starting from the middle of the greens and working back to the tees. I make note of the 150-yard mark in the middle of the fairway, and try to hit every drive or second shot there so that I always have a 7-iron in. And over the years I’ve gotten pretty handy with the 7.”
During the following year (2014) my life changed, and so did the lives of Billy and Moon. My wife’s health worsened, and I was consumed with running my practice and looking after her. I rarely saw Billy who by now was consulting with half a dozen other specialists. As for Moon, he was swamped with everything that goes into producing a successful sport’s book. I was also out of the loop on the book and hadn’t even seen the galleys. Only once had I thought of Billy’s bucket list, and that was when I heard that Palmer wasn’t going to hit a ceremonial shot off the first tee at Augusta. Through that difficult year, I regularly showed up for my Saturday morning game, but golf had become nothing more than an escape, and was no longer fun.
By contrast, Billy and Moon had more fun at the 2014 Masters than if they’d sneaked on the course at night and played barefoot without getting caught. In the evenings, after overeating, they’d retire to the far corner of their rental and tell each other salty jokes. During the day, they sat under an umbrella near the first tee, kibitzed and signed copies of the book for everyone who stopped by including caddies from the old days, some current Augusta members, a couple former champions, dozens of Tour players, long lines of fans and friends, including Clebe McClary, the wounded Marine.
“Have you heard of him?” Billy asked as we sat in my office a year later.
“No, I don’t think so. Why?”
“Because he’s the reason I finally talked to Arnie.”
“Is he a counselor?”
“Oh, Lord no. Far from it. He’s a Marine, and he inspired me to get it done.”
And with that Billy took me behind the scenes of his meeting with Arnie, beginning in the Augusta clubhouse on the evening of April 8, 2014.
“I asked Arnie at the Champion’s Dinner if we could talk, privately, and he agreed to meet, as we did. It’s a tight space, the Champion’s Locker Room, and we sat close enough to each other that I could touch his knee. He was holding a drink. I had my hands full trying to come up with the right words to begin, but before I could say anything he said, ‘I’m glad for this, Billy. I’ve missed our visits.’
“What a relief, you’ll never know, Doc. Arnold Palmer, always the gentleman. Seemed to know what needed saying and when. The next thing I knew I’d blurted out, ‘I’m sorry, Arnie. I’m so sorry for what I said.’
“‘It’s all right, Billy.’
“‘I don’t know why. It just came out. I’ve thought about it every day since it happened, and I still have no idea what got into me.’
“‘We’ve all said things we’d like to take back,’ Arnie said.
“‘I wasn’t trying to psyche you out or hurt you. Not consciously, anyway.’
“At that moment I wasn’t sure how things were going. Palmer was pretty quiet. He was never a talkative guy. I began to sweat. ‘I hope you believe me, Arnie.’
“‘I do,’ he said without flourish. A sigh of relief would not be giving the moment its due – 40 years of pressure completely released in a single breath was more like it. One of the happiest moments of my life.
“We engaged in some small talk for a few minutes before Arnie got down to what he had to say. ‘Billy, if you’re wondering if losing the Open the way I lost it was a setback, I’d have to say that it was. Did your words sting? Yeah, they did. But don’t forget that I made a pretty good putt on 18 after that, which got me into a playoff.’
“‘If you hadn’t made that putt I couldn’t have lived with myself,’ I confessed.
“‘You know, Billy, we’ve all got weaknesses we fight.’
“He could have said, ‘And, Billy, you’ve got a big mouth.’ Instead he said, ‘Billy, who am I to judge? Why, you’ve brought more joy into this old world than anyone I’ve ever met.’”
“I choked up. Actually, I lost it there for a while. Arnie, God bless him, gave me time to compose myself, flashed me that famous grin, got to his feet with effort, hugged me, said ‘We never quit, do we?’ and that was it.”
Being a physician I spent the next hour with Billy taking a deep dive into his psyche, coming up with a few theories. Unresolved anger over his parents’ divorce? Poor impulse control? Low self-esteem? Celebrity Entitlement Syndrome? Mild Tourettes?
“Who knows,” he shrugged. “So long as Arnie understood me, and [wife] Shirley and the kids still love me, I’m good.”
Billy, after all was said and done, was a man of faith – faith in his God, in his fellow man, faith in himself.
“Don’t you worry, Doctor Rick,” he said joyfully on his way out the door on that memorable afternoon. “God could use me today. I’m not giving up.”