In keeping with Masters week this is a story about a legend of the game. He inspired me with one autograph.
Spring of 1973, I was nine years old and witnessed my first professional golf tournament at Lakewood Country Club. Watching Jack Nicklaus beat Miller Barber as I sat on my dad’s shoulders. Two years later, I’m knee deep in love with the game caddying every weekend at Bayou Barriere Country Club for a group called the PIGS (Plumbing Industry Golfing Society). It’s springtime and the Pros are coming to New Orleans. One of the featured players is former Masters Champion Billy Casper. Billy was one of the most underrated superstar golfers of all time. He won the 1970 Masters shooting 72-68-68-71 and then beat Gene Littler in an 18 hole playoff to collect a whopping $25,000 cash. Billy won 3 majors and 51 tournaments on the PGA TOUR. He ranks 7th in all time wins. He has accumulated the most Ryder Cup points in the history of the American teams. He won the 1958 New Orleans Classic at City Park Golf Course.
It’s Thursday, May 15th, 1975. My mom pulls me out of school at lunch to head to the First NBC New Orleans Open at Lakewood Country Club. I actually got to play hooky for the day. As soon as we get there my mom and I see the scoreboard and Billy Casper was playing the 18th. He was five under for the day and leading the tournament. He ended up shooting 67-68-66-70 to win. I had brought a 3x5 index note card with me to collect autographs. I’m not sure I understood how great a player Billy Casper was at the time. He finishes the round and exits the scoring tent. I’m the only one asking for autographs. I ask Billy for his autograph and he hands me his soft drink to hold and puts his scoring pencil in his mouth. He hasn’t had the chance to put his watch back on. A Times-Picayune reporter snaps our picture and it ends up being the featured picture in the sports section of newspaper the next morning. If you look at my big cheesy grin you can imagine how I was floating around school the next day. It was awesome but the teachers were not happy about me skipping school. There was a little detention time served but it didn’t bother me. I was in the paper, LOL. The next day about five of my friends were all at the tournament after school trying to get into the newspaper too. My dad wrote a note on the back of the 1975 picture that I’ve posted with this story, “Interest in golf really started after seeing this tournament. Decided to try to be Pro Golfer.” I pursued it with a passion. I was on a mission to get a PGA TOUR card. I wanted to be like Billy Casper and Jack Nicklaus and all the other Pros. Won the team State Championship in high school with the De La Salle golf team, received a scholarship to attend Lamar University and graduated in 1986 right after turning Pro. Chased the dream across the globe from the United States to Canada to South Africa and back again. It took six years but I finally earned my TOUR card in the fall of 1991. 1992, my rookie year, was fast and exciting, I kept my TOUR card for the following season which allowed me to play in some off season events. The first invitation was from King Hassan II of Morocco. His tournament was called The Hassan II Trophy. The King was a golf fanatic for many years, in fact he received golf lessons from Claude Harmon (former Masters champion), Butch Harmon (one of the greatest teachers of all time) and Mr. Casper. The King sent a private jet to New York for all of the players going to the event. My manager Clark Jones informed me that Billy Casper would be on the plane and that I should spend time with him since he was one of the best putters of all time. I said “interesting you should mention his name. I got a story.” I get on the plane and Mr. Casper is sitting in the first row. Eric Egloff is my caddy and is sitting with me in the middle of the plane (Morocco stories about this trip may be included in later posts). About half way across the ocean I show Eric the picture of Billy Casper and I from 1975 and he says “you got to go show him the picture.” I finally get enough courage and walk up to first class to talk to Billy. I introduce myself and show him the picture. He gave me a big smile. We talked for a solid hour. It was fantastic. We talked about how I got started as a caddy and he told me he did the same thing as a kid in San Diego. We talked about New Orleans and the fact that the 1975 tournament was his last win on the PGA TOUR. It was 17 years later and I was just as excited as I was as an 11 year old collecting autographs. Here I was sitting with a former Masters Champion on a private plane heading to Morocco to meet a King. Are you kidding me? I was in heaven. Career happens, marriage happens, Katrina happens, playing career ends, babies happen. It’s now 2008 and Billy Casper is coming back to New Orleans to host a golf clinic for the 50th anniversary of his 1958 New Orleans Open win at City Park. I couldn’t help myself. I grab our one year old daughter Elle and head to City Park. I bring out my prized Billy Casper autographed photo one more time. It was such a cool moment to reminisce about his first New Orleans Open win in 1958 and last win in 1975. We talked about how this one picture inspired me all the way to the PGA TOUR. Of course I had to take another picture for my daughter. I’m actually sharing this story with her for the first time today. The last photo I took with Billy Casper was actually at the Masters a few years later. I was hosting a corporate group on a walk through the clubhouse when I saw the Green Jacket, it was Billy Casper. The Masters Champion.