McCabe: Veteran credits Casper for saving his life

Billy Casper and Clebe McClary enjoy a long embrace after being reunited after 46 years.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – We interrupt the pimento-cheese sandwiches, ball-skipping at the 16th and solemn walks around Amen Corner to pose a philosophical question: When finally after 46 years you meet the man to whom you owe all the happiness and joy you feel blessed to have enjoyed for most of your life, how long of a hug is long enough?

Clebe McClary wasn’t sure, so as the embrace intensified, Billy Casper leaned in and whispered, “Don’t let go till you want to let go.”

So right there in front of dozens of patrons, in the shadow of the iconic oak tree behind the Augusta National clubhouse, McClary and Casper hugged . . . and hugged . . . and hugged.

“We hugged for five minutes,” said Casper, who choked back tears. But McClary? He didn’t even try to hold 'em back. He cried like a baby, which was not so conspicuous because as the scene played out, so, too, did the emotions of so many others let loose.

“We all just cried our eyes out,” said Julia Cervantes, one of Casper’s 11 children.

On any day, Casper is a wonderful story, a righteous man with a keen sense of human kindness. But on this cool, breezy Masters day, his story was even more wonderful thanks to a reunion with McClary, who told everyone how Casper had saved his life. It was 1968, the height of the Vietnam War, and Casper, in the prime of his golf career, was off to Japan to play some offseason tournaments.

While he was there, did he want to visit some wounded American troops, who had been convalescing from Vietnam? Casper said yes, because, well, that’s his warm-hearted nature. “I was recently asked by a man what I want to be remembered for,” Casper said. “I told him, ‘I want to be remembered for how I loved my fellow man.’ "

That day at a hospital in Japan may have shown Casper at his warmest because when he looked over at a bed and saw a young man who had been wounded to a point where he could barely be recognized, the golfer moved closer. A doctor told him not to bother, that Marine 1st Lt. Patrick Cleburne "Clebe" McClary “was ready to die,” said Casper, but something made him approach the man.

“I will never forget that day,” said McClary, who on March 3, 1968 had been wounded during his 19th reconnaissance mission in Vietnam. McClary lost his left arm and his left eye and laid in that bed that day thinking one thing. “I’d given up," he said. "I wanted to die, and I’d have died right there if not for him.”

photo

Jay Haas (left) arranged for Billy Casper (middle) and Clebe McClary (right) to meet on Tuesday at Augusta National.

Casper, by 1968 a two-time U.S. Open champion and one of the most prolific winners on the PGA Tour, sensed McClary’s hopelessness as he approached the man.

“He put his arm around me, leaned in and said, ‘God could use you today. Don’t give up,’ " McClary said. “Then he thanked me for what I had done for our country and said, ‘God bless you.’ "

Somehow, McClary found the resolve to fight. Somehow, he survived, left that hospital in Japan, and settled in his native South Carolina, near Myrtle Beach. Years went by and he often wondered about this gentle golfer who had brought out the fight in him, but there was nothing more than that. “I mean, I didn’t know golf from polo,” McClary said.

But one day more than a year ago, McClary was down at his beach house talking with a neighbor, a guy named Jay Haas, telling him his life story. The left arm and left eye had been lost in 'Nam, and his life should have been ended in a hospital in Japan, if not for a golfer. With that, Haas’ ear perked up. “I said, ‘Who was the golfer?’ " Haas said. “He said, 'Billy Casper. Do you know him?’ "

Haas smiled, then made it his mission to reunite McClary and Casper. The Masters would offer the perfect opportunity. Casper, the 1970 champion, would never miss the pilgrimage. Neither would Haas, who competed 22 times at the Masters and whose son Bill is a regular participant these years and whose uncle, the irrepressible Bob Goalby, won in 1968.

The first chance fell apart Monday when rain washed out the day’s action at Augusta National, but on Tuesday the story unfolded to perfection. Haas met McClary up behind the clubhouse, found Goalby, who tracked down Casper and then . . . well, it is said that Augusta National is a magical place, and here was proof positive that it is.

“You never know what effect you’re going to have on another human being,” said Cervantes, who watched the emotions unfold alongside her mother, Shirley, other family members, Haas and Goalby.

When finally the long, emotional hug was over and the pictures were taken, Casper and McClary had so much to say to each other. Forty-six years is a long, long time, but the Marine told the golfer that he had thought of him often. The golfer nodded, because he felt similarly.

McClary told Casper that he was proud of his life. Not because of the Silver Star or Bronze Star or the three Purple Hearts that he had been presented. It wasn’t for the book he had written, “Living Proof,” either. No, he was proud because he had heeded Casper’s advice to stay strong and find faith in God.

But make no mistake about it: “You’re the reason he’s living. He was ready to die,” one of McClary’s friends said to Casper.

McClary, a motivational speaker who has given talks in all 50 states, smiled, wiped away tears, and nodded his head. “My guardian angel,” he said, pointing to Casper.

As they stood side by side, Casper and McClary threw long, satisifed looks out over the greenest landscape known to man. “A special, special place, but you need to see more of it,” Casper said, and McClary nodded. He was going to walk Augusta National, but McClary had to have one more hug and a promise from Casper that if the Hall of Famer were ever in Pawleys Island, S.C., he had to stop in.

Casper agreed, then McClary started on his walk. But before he did, the former Marine reached into his pocket and handed his business card to someone standing nearby. It read: “I’m just a nobody, that wants to tell everybody, about somebody, that can save anybody.”

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