Casper on '66 Open: 'I think I won'

Billy Casper reacts after he ran a 25-foot putt into the cup on the 11th green for a birdie 3 during his playoff with Arnold Palmer for the U.S. Open title in San Francisco, on June 20, 1966. Two strokes down at the time, Casper pulled even when Palmer bogeyed the hole.

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In some respects, it’s as if the longest official inquiry is complete. Forty-six years later, it has been declared that Billy Casper won the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club.

For decades, we have been under the impression that Arnold Palmer lost that 1966 tournament.

“Amazing. All these years later, and it’s nice to be recognized,” Casper said. “But I’ve always said, ‘Remember, there were only 16 scores under par that U.S. Open, and I had four of them. So, yes, I think I won.’ ”

Casper points to Palmer’s 1999 autobiography, “A Golfer’s Life,” in which Palmer wrote: “I didn’t just lose the 1966 U.S. Open. Bill Casper’s brilliant play won it.”

Casper’s fourth sub-70 round 46 years ago came in a playoff when he beat Palmer, 69-73, to cap a stunning victory and a shocking defeat. Up by three after 54 holes, Palmer on Sunday blitzed Olympic’s outward nine in 32 to build a seven-stroke cushion with just nine to play. It was a foregone conclusion that The King had won his second U.S. Open and eighth major.

To this day, Casper concedes he was playing for second, but he said two factors

contributed to his stirring comeback. One, “I just continued to play my game, and I played so well,” and two, “Arnold was the most aggressive player ever, and he was concerned with beating Hogan’s

U.S. Open record.”

Ben Hogan’s 276 at Riviera had stood since 1948, and Palmer knew an inward 1-over 36 or better would set the record.

Instead, Palmer crashed with a fire-at-every-flagstick philosophy, adding to Olympic’s folklore as

a graveyard, of sorts, for icons. Hogan in 1955, Palmer and then Tom Watson in 1987 squandered Opens there.

Though Hogan and Watson lost to unheralded names – Jack Fleck and Scott Simpson, respectively – Palmer’s defeat overshadows Casper’s brilliant finish. Then again, wasn’t that the way of Casper’s world, to be overlooked?

Not that it bothers Casper, who turns 81 on June 24. He is at peace.

“When I was in the Navy, I made $54.50 every two weeks, and then when I got out on Tour, I was just happy to be able to do what I loved,” Casper said. “I knew if I could make enough money to take care of my wife and kids, it would be all I wanted.”

Shirley bore three children, after which doctors told her she could have no more. So Billy and Shirley adopted six. “Then she proved the doctors wrong. She had two more,” Casper said.

Golf, of course, provided Casper with the means to support Shirley and their 11 children. “That is all I ever cared about, my family. I never paid attention to the stats.”

Curiously, Casper is in great company. The spotlight in the ’60s and ’70s shined on The Big Three – Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – but Casper was special. From 1964 to ’70, he won 27 times on Tour, two more than Nicklaus and six more than Palmer and Player combined. In all, Casper won 51 times on Tour.

Yet Casper is perhaps best known as the most overlooked star golf has ever produced, which is the premise behind “The Big Three And Me,” Casper’s recent book with authors James Parkinson and Lee Benson.

Much to Casper’s delight, the book has brought a little fanfare his way, with a book-signing tour keeping him busy.

“And to think, I thought I was old when I was 50,” he said with a laugh. “But this has been so wonderful. I’m still so active, and I feel so blessed.”

Forty-six years ago, Casper stood on Olympic’s 10th tee, trailing the legendary Palmer by seven. Etched in history is what Palmer did – bogey at 10, birdie at 12, bogeys at the par 3s, 13 and 15, plus the par-5 16th and the demanding par-4 17th, and an inward 39 that left him at 2-under 278.

But what Casper did on the back? Not so famously embraced.

Had he shot 2 under, Casper would have been second. Instead, he played a bogey-free final nine to come home in 3-under 32 and force a playoff. Casper repeated his comeback act Monday. Down by two at the turn, he outscored Palmer by six over the closing nine to hoist a second Open trophy.

Yet, it is regarded as the trophy that Palmer dropped.

Too bad, but Casper knows he can’t change that historical viewpoint, though perhaps this renaissance year will help. The book, the U.S. Open’s return to Olympic and an invitation

to present the trophy to this year’s winner . . . it’s all bringing a healthy dose of recognition Casper’s way.

Years after his prime, of course, but no worries. It’s not Casper’s way to hold grudges.

It was his way to hold trophies, none more deserving than the one he won 46 years ago.

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