Masters win meant so much to 1970 champ Billy Casper he took his green jacket to his grave
Billy Casper never lost his appreciation for the Masters Tournament and Augusta National Golf Club. In fact, he took a piece of each with him to his grave when he died in 2015.
The 1970 champion was buried in his green jacket. His wife, Shirley, asked for and received permission from Augusta National for this last act.
When asked how much winning the Masters meant to her husband of 63 years, Shirley Casper mentioned a pair of memories.
“About eight feet from our bed hangs a portrait of Bill in his green jacket,” she said.
Photos: Billy Casper at the Masters
That jacket was won in a historic battle between two men who had known each other for about a quarter of a century and were the closest of friends.
After finishing the fourth round of the 1970 Masters, Gene Littler and Casper sat side-by-side and spoke to the media. The men had first met while grinding the San Diego junior golf circuit.
The California kids were 11 months apart — Littler the elder. They both had wives named Shirley. They even spent time as teammates on the San Diego Naval Training Station golf team.
When asked about their strategy for Monday’s 18-hole playoff, Casper said, “I’ll tee it high, and let it fly.”
Littler responded, “I’ll tee it low and let it go.”
Growing up, Littler was considered the local prodigy and never lost to Casper in high school or junior tournaments. Littler won the San Diego Open as an amateur in 1954, quickly turned professional, then finished second at the 1954 U.S. Open. Casper, however, ended with a more prolific professional career. The devout Mormon had 51 PGA Tour wins, including two U.S. Opens and one Masters.
Casper left little doubt on April 13, 1970.
Casper birdied No. 1 and led by five strokes after seven holes. The advantage ballooned to seven after 11, and briefly shrunk to three after No. 15, before Casper ended with a 69 to Littler’s 74.
“As I walked off the green there was Cliff Roberts,” Casper recalled in 2010. “He stuck out his hand and I expected him to say ‘Congratulations, Billy.’ Instead he said ‘thank you’ twice. He’d been rooting for me to win Augusta for a number of years.”
Shirley Casper followed her husband for all 90 holes of the 1970 Masters, and said of the pressure, “You learn to live with it, but never get used to it.” It was a saying she borrowed from Winnie Palmer while their husbands, Billy and Arnold, competed together in the Ryder Cup.
During the 1970 Masters, Shirley Littler remained in California with their children, Curt and Suzanne — and it was probably for the best. Following Sunday’s round, the owner of Littler’s rented house in Augusta returned, leaving the Californian without a place to stay. Littler packed his belongings, returned Sunday evening to Augusta National and stayed in a cottage on the club grounds.
For the Casper and Littler families, their friendship transcended golf. Before and after the 1970 Masters, Casper regarded Littler as his closest pal on tour. Both Shirleys desired each other’s company, and the couples occasionally met for dinner at the Fish Market in Del Mar — a midpoint between their San Diego homes.
When Casper died, the Littler family attended a ceremony at San Diego Country Club. When Littler died in February 2019, Shirley Casper was at his memorial service.
Of all the memories the families shared, only two topics were off limits. During their playing days, Casper and Littler would often dine together, while Casper would eat ice cream for dessert. Shirley Littler was health conscious and preferred her husband avoid the temptation.
“Bill would secretly take Gene to get ice cream, and we’d keep that from Shirley,” said Shirley Casper, laughing.
The second topic was the 1970 Masters. Out of respect, the families never spoke of what turned out to be the final 18-hole playoff in Masters history. In 1976, the format switched to sudden death.
“From the first time I played at Augusta I felt I could win,” Casper said. “I guess it took me a few years. Of course when they put the green jacket on you there’s nothing like it.”
Shirley Casper hasn’t returned to Augusta since her husband died, and when asked what she misses most about the Masters, her answer wasn’t about golf.
“That’s easy,” Casper said. “I miss my friends — Barbara Nicklaus and Vivienne Player. It’s been so long since I’ve seen them. You know, that’s what I loved about returning to Augusta: You always saw your friends.”