Skip to main content
Original Issue

If a Texas portent holds true, watch out for Big Billy

Casper won the Colonial by avoiding trouble on the banks of the Trinity, and history makes him a solid contender in the U.S. Open

One of the perplexities of today's pro tour is that Billy Casper, the soft, round golfer who plays so well on lean, hard courses, can win so many tournaments while enjoying so little acclaim. Last week he added the Colonial Invitation at Fort Worth to a list of titles that includes a U.S. Open, two Crosby championships and half a dozen others that are held on the most difficult of courses against the best opposition. He won with a one-under-par 279—only the second time in nine years a Colonial winner has been under par. He beat runner-up Tommy Jacobs by four strokes, and those players whose reputations have so deeply shadowed his own he defeated thoroughly: Arnold Palmer by eight shots, Gary Player by eight, Jack Nicklaus by 13 and Julius Boros by 14. Equally as interesting, for those who care to look ahead, Casper's Colonial win means he now must be ranked as one of the strongest contenders when the U.S. Open is held next month in Washington. Three times in its 17-year history the Colonial champion (Hogan in 1953, Bolt in 1958 and Boros last year) has shortly afterward taken the U.S. Open championship. On this basis, Casper is automatically a 5-to-1 shot, pretty short odds where the Open, or any golf tournament, is concerned. What is more, half the time the Colonial winner has managed to finish in the top five at the U.S. Open and two out of three Open winners have come from among the top five finishers at Colonial. In six of the past seven years the Colonial winner has had an excellent chance to win the Open going into the last nine holes. So if you want to use Colonial history as a form sheet, you can look for the 1964 U.S. Open champion to come from a group that includes Casper, Jacobs, Gene Littler, Dow Finsterwald, Gay Brewer, Palmer and Player, men who finished first through fifth last Sunday at Fort Worth.

But if the record is both mute and eloquent, as statistics always are, attempting to get the right explanation of why Colonial is such a tip-off to the Open is not so simple. The men who should know are the players, but it is a mistake to ask them. If all their various and contradictory answers—each delivered with confident gusto—were fed into a computer they would yield nothing but an inelegant puff of smoke and a short circuit.

There are a few obvious considerations. The most important of these is that the tournament is held annually about five weeks before the Open and that a player must be reaching the peak of his game to win on a golf course that is one of the finest and most difficult in the country. Colonial is long—7,100 yards. Oak, pecan, hackberry, elm and willow trees flourish in abundance along its narrow, twisting fairways and around smallish but difficult bent-grass greens. Sand traps abound like fallen acorns, approximately 75 of them speckling the course, and there is a liberal sprinkling of ponds. But what really gives the course its punishing character is the Trinity River, which is nothing but a murky creek except at full flood. The Trinity comes into play on six holes. Its banks are tangled with undergrowth, and once you have hit a golf ball into it, it might as well be the Mississippi. Its presence is both exhilarating for the spectators and terrifying for the players.

This combination of distance, trees, sand and water conspires to make the Colonial one of the last tournaments that can be won with overpar golf. Nobody but Casper and Boros have broken par for 72 holes since the days when tournament officials moved the tees up because they thought spectators wanted to see the pros demolish a course. Now sponsors have learned that galleries relish seeing the pros humiliated, and Colonial can do it. It is not every week that Arnold Palmer has a 41, as he did on the first nine last Thursday. So in many ways Colonial is like an Open course.

Yet unlike the great majority of U.S. Open courses, Colonial is flat, and the rough bordering its fairways is not much deeper than the fur on a bear rug. Thus it can be argued that it is only coincidence which makes the Colonial tournament a harbinger of the Open.

"Yes, it's just coincidence," says Julius Boros, who oozes pride in his great ability to hit golf shots with a lazy take-it-or-leave-it lack of pushiness. "It's not really like most Open courses. It's flat, and it's not a tight driving course. At the Open you must drive the ball long and straight. It's just that this is a tough course, and the best players win on the tough courses. A lot of the other tournaments are only putting contests where anyone can win." Boros, off his Colonial and Open successes last year, ought to know.

"No, it's not just coincidence," says husky Mike Souchak, who had won at Colonial in 1956 and has come close in the Open on three occasions. "I've learned how to play the Open, and it's the same here at Colonial. It's a tight driving course and you must keep the ball in play off the tee. There is no particular demand on your iron play. You just get the ball on the green somewhere, and anyone who can putt at all can get down in two for a par. Par golf wins here, just as it does at the Open." Jack Nicklaus agrees, more or less, with Souchak: tight driving course, no particular stress on iron play.

Convinced? Then just listen to Arnold Palmer. A first-round 75, scored despite the fact that he had hit almost every shot with energetic perfection, had sent him rolling into the pro shop, where he attempted to relax by vehemently re-wrapping the grip of his driver. "How can anyone say you don't need to hit good irons here?" he almost shouted, his wide forehead knit with astonishment. "In that respect this is one of the toughest courses we ever play. It is a tight driving course, but since you are going to miss a lot of greens you have also got to be able to get it up to the hole and down in one putt from off the green to win."

And in case there might be any final lack of confusion, Ernie Vossler, a once fine but now infrequent player on the circuit who has been a Colonial member since his amateur days in 1948, adds his own summation. "It's tougher than the Open courses," he says. "The long hitters aren't fond of it because there are too many holes where they have to play safe with an iron or three-wood off the tee. A short hitter can win at Colonial if he can hit his shots straight, but in the Open there are always two or three birdie holes. Here there are none."

At least one clear point emerges from the welter of conflicting opinions: the course is greatly respected by all who play it. This is exactly what its founder, Fort Worth's Marvin Leonard, had in mind when he put up the money for its construction back in 1935. Leonard, a prosperous oilman who also owns a six-block department store in downtown Fort Worth, brought in Golf Architects John Bredemus from Texas and Perry Maxwell from Oklahoma to lay down a course on a spread of brush-covered farm, dairy and floodland. "I want an outstanding course," he told them, and he turned out to be a tough man with a blueprint. He asked each designer to show him five distinct and different plans, then had them try five more.

"We walked them all and picked the one we liked best," he says. "We have modernized and enlarged and tightened some of the greens, but basically the course has not changed."

Colonial did what Leonard hoped it would do, bring big-time golf to Fort Worth, and it was a big-time field that wandered the banks of the Trinity last week. For the first three rounds it looked as if the player to finish first would fit most closely into Arnold Palmer's view of what the winner must do: drive well and scramble deftly around the greens. On the first day Gary Player's two-under-par 68 was the low score. Friday an electrical storm sent the players scurrying for cover like—well, like people who did not want to be struck by lightning—and washed out the second round. Since national television coverage, as sweet to tournament sponsors as it is to presidential candidates, was involved, tournament officials further strengthened the Colonial's Open-trial motif by running off two rounds on Saturday. Thus a single, orderly 18 holes would be left to fill Sunday's prime TV time.

"I'm really pooped," moaned Billy Casper when he had finished his Saturday's double journey around the course. Casper seems to play with the nonchalance of a man out walking his dog, but he is actually an intense competitor who can score well when not playing well. In the morning he hit only 11 greens in regulation figures, but he one-putted 10 greens and shot a 67. In the afternoon he needed only 30 putts and shot a 70 to tie for the lead at 209 with Tommy Jacobs. "It was the best putting I've done in two or three years," Casper said. "I can't play this game. All I can do is putt. If I could start swinging at the ball I'd really shoot a score."

"Don't you just talk about putting when you talk about Casper," said Art Wall later, and he seemed almost angered at the very thought. "He has all the shots to be rated with the finest players."

On Sunday—playing with Wall—Casper showed he did have a fair country golf swing, even if he himself did not think much of it. He birdied the first hole and took a lead he was never about to give up. His tee shots were straight, and his long irons were hit low and crisply to the center of the greens. After six holes Jacobs had faded, and on the eighth the last man with a chance, Littler, saw one of his shots kick sickeningly off a bank and into the Trinity River. Casper did not challenge the Colonial course the rest of the way in, but he did not annoy it either, and he was home an easy winner.

How does his victory make him feel about his prospects in the Open, Casper was asked. "Oh, oh," he laughed, "There is that question." And then he said: "I figure if I am putting well there is not any tournament I cannot win." That putting business again. Art Wall must have winced.