WITHIN 10 DAYS between late January to early February golf lost three of its finest players. The deaths were announced of the great Australian, Kel Nagle, and two American giants, Bill Casper and Charles Sifford, all of whom had an enormous impact on the game from the 1950s onwards.
Nagle, together with his compatriot Peter Thomson, did an enormous amount to raise the profile of Australian golf worldwide. Whilst the latter won The Open five times between 1954 and 1965, Nagle won it only once but had to stop Arnold Palmer from lifting the claret jug for the third consecutive time. His victory came in the 100th anniversary Open at St Andrews in 1960 when he pipped Palmer by a shot. He was also close to winning the US Open five years later when he lost in a play-off to Gary Player at Bellevue Country Club in St Louis.
However, it was in his homeland that he really dominated events, winning a record 61 times- his nearest challenger is Greg Norman with 31- with another 18 victories around the world including the Swiss and French Open plus two in the US. Between 1949 and 1975 he won at least once a year and was widely regarded as one of the great gentlemen of world golf.
His performance would have been even more impressive had he played any golf between the ages of 18 and 24, being on active service during World War II. He died, aged 94, in his native Sydney on January 29th.
Bill Casper was born of humble origins in San Diego, California. Like so many golfers of his generation and upbringing his first experience of golf came as caddy where, after a day carrying bags, he would head off in the dark to practise putting. Wielding his favourite, heavy D-shaped putter he became possibly the greatest exponent of the game within a game that golf has ever seen.
He was hugely unlucky to have been overshadowed by the ‘Big Three’ of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player who all benefitted from being part of golf’s first professional management and marketing team led by Mark McCormack.
Casper lacked charisma. Despite his enormous talent he was not a big hitter and battled against a large number of allergies that caused him to put on weight. Having been called ‘Fatso’ at school he became known as ‘Buffalo Bill’ due to his bizarre diet to combat allergic reaction that also brought on headaches, muscle spasms and sinusitis. He ate buffalo, hippopotamus, caribou and elk steaks to ease the depression that the allergies created, yet he rarely looked anything other than gloomy as he trudged around the course.
Just how good he was is shown by the fact that he won a ‘major’ every decade for three decades, including a heroic fightback from seven shots behind against Arnold Palmer in 1966 to win the US Open after having lost 50 pounds on his diet.
He won 51 US tournaments, including two US Opens and a Masters, and only six men have ever won more: Sam Snead, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson; and Casper is most certainly is not out of place in that company.
His one great regret in golf was that he played so rarely in the UK, entering just five Open Championships, with his highest finish being fourth at Carnoustie in 1968 which he led at one stage by four shots. In retirement, Casper, a devout Mormon, did a huge amount through the Billy Casper Youth Foundation raising over $3m for disadvantaged children. He died of pneumonia, aged 83, on February 7th in Utah.
The last of our golfing heroes who passed away trod the hardest road of all. Charlie Sifford was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1922 to poor black parents, and black Americans did not play professional golf in anything bigger than the National Negro Open because the US PGA rules stated its tour was ‘Caucasian only’ until 1961 thus barring African Americans and all other ‘players of color’ from entry.
Sifford learnt his golf as a caddy and may not have been the most naturally talented of his generation but was certainly the most determined. He just kept plugging away, being both his own coach and manager. By the time the Civil Rights movement and numerous lawsuits had convinced the PGA to allow black golfers to compete, Sifford was 38 and past his prime.
Yet despite his age, facing routine abuse from the watching galleries and even death threats if he appeared in some tournaments he kept on going. In 1967 he won the Greater Hartford Open, the first fully sanctioned PGA Tour event ever to have been won by a black golfer and two years later he won the Los Angeles Open. Sports Illustrated magazine wrote: ‘Charles Sifford, Negro, 46, father of two, his own golf teacher, a short little man with a moustache, was a curious hero in a country club sport.’
Despite, shamefully, never being invited to play in the Masters he went on to compete in some 422 PGA events winning around $350,000 and was even more successful on the Seniors Tour collecting $930,000 in prize money. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, the nation’s highest civilian award, for his services to golf.
Earl Woods, Tiger Woods’s father, once said of Sifford, ‘He took the punishment, the ridicule and he still persevered. For that he should always be remembered. Because nobody else did it but him. He was the first.’ Sifford died, aged 92, on February 3rd in Cleveland, Ohio.