OCEAN PINES — It is a rare and special pleasure to listen at length to someone who has lived through half a century of incredible events, whatever they happen to be. But for the golf enthusiasts who filled the better part of the Country Club last weekend to hear Billy Casper speak and to ask him questions about his career, the insider stories about the golden age of golf was a particular treat.
The 80-year-old Casper is no stranger to Ocean Pines. Having worked as the club touring professional at the height of his career, he was in the unique position of returning to the club 40 years after he left it.
“What a pleasant atmosphere to play golf under these beautiful trees, I’m just amazed at the beauty that was here,” he said of the golf course. “When I was here there was nothing.”
Casper offered a good-natured critique about how, beautiful though they were, older players like him would be just as happy with fewer trees which would help drive scores down.
During the opening interview section with OPA golf professional Damien Cosby, Casper was self-effacing, assuring the crowd and the interviewer several times that not only was there a point to the story he was telling but that the story would eventually set up the answer to his question.
When you have been on the pro tour as long as Casper has, simple questions about the past naturally become complex as they need to be contextualized.
When Cosby asked what it felt like to walk down the fairway of the 18th hole knowing he was going to win his first Masters, the story couldn’t have been told in as poignant a way as it was without some significant background.
This is a person who says “Jack” without having to qualify that he is talking about Nicklaus and who developed close friendships with Gary Player, whom he had eliminated to reach the playoff round of the Masters and Gene Littler whom he bested to win it.
More importantly, and even more than 40 years later, he can tell it in a suspenseful way. Before the 17th hole, Casper had blown the five-stroke lead he established after the first nine holes.
The story of how he felt, knowing he had accomplished one of his lifelong dreams, had to begin well before the fact of his walking up the fairway. While it wasn’t the culmination of a career — he’d later talk about how he was ranked in the top five golfers of all time because of his consistent high finishes — it was the pinnacle. And it took much longer to get there than the several days of play that sealed it.
The win came more than 15 years after the first time he placed “in the money” as a professional. splitting last prize with two other golfers to bring home a whopping $33.33, which even by non-sports standards wasn’t much of a paycheck in 1956.
But it was only after he’d answered the question at length that his initial reaction to it became truly moving. The first thing he said, choking up, when the question about winning the Masters was posed was: “It is still overpowering to drive down Magnolia Lane.”
Magnolia Lane is the road that literally leads to Augusta. It is a street just as storied as the figurative road Casper took to his Master’s victory.