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A Legend Passes

Billy Casper saw tour victories in Portland
by Bob Robinson

Bob Robinson

Billy Casper sat in the front row of bleachers behind the 18th green at Portland Golf Club. He had a puzzled look as he viewed a giant IBM electronic scoreboard about 100 yards away.

“What does it mean?” he asked as he saw that rival Lee Trevino had made a triple-bogey at the 145-yard 17th hole in the final round of the 1969 Alcan Golfer of the Year Championship.

“It means that you have a one-stroke lead,” he was told. Casper shook his head, looked to the sky and said, “I just can’t believe it.”

Moments later, Trevino made a par at the 18th and Casper had a most improbable win considering that he had been six strokes behind Trevino with three holes to play.

Billy Casper
Billy Casper (second from right) sits behind the 18th green watching Lee Trevino finish at the 1969 Alcan Golfer of the Year Championship. (Photo courtesy Portland Golf Club)

That incredible turnaround has left an enduring golf memory of the fast-playing and deadly putting Casper, who died on Feb. 7 at his home in Springville, Utah. He was 83.

Casper shot a six-under-par 66 that day at Portland GC, making birdies on the last four holes. That turned into victory when Trevino, on fire earlier in the round, finished bogey, triple-bogey, par for a 69. Glassy-eyed, Casper inquired, “What happened to him on 17?”

He winced as he heard the details. A tee shot into a buried lie in a bunker. A second shot that hit the lip of the bunker and fell back into one of Trevino’s footprints in the sand. A shot out of the bunker to 30 feet. Three putts. No one else made worse than a bogey on the hole in the entire 72-hole tournament.

Casper was reminded of his victory in the 1966 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club near San Francisco when he erased Arnold Palmer’s seven-shot lead on the final round’s back nine before beating him in an 18-hole playoff the next day.

“This was even more fantastic,” he said. “There, I could see it coming. Here, it was thrown at me blind side.”

The victory earned Casper $55,000, golf’s largest tournament prize at the time. The fact that the Alcan was an unofficial event so far as the tour money list was concerned bothered him not at all.

Interestingly, three of Casper’s 51 tour victories also came in Portland. He claimed consecutive Portland Open titles in 1959, 1960 and 1961. “Portland was very good to me,” he would say years later.