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Odd-man-out Casper deserved more

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Billy Casper Dies At Age 83 (0:48)

PGA Tour legend Billy Casper died at the age of 83. He won 51 PGA Tour events over his career. (0:48)

The accolades poured in overnight as word spread that one of golf's great champions had passed away, fitting for a man whose accomplishments seemed to only be appreciated the farther away we got from them.

Undoubtedly Billy Casper was overshadowed in the 1960s by the "Big Three" of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

No doubt that trio of Hall of Famers would believe their group should have included a fourth.

Casper, who died Saturday at age 83, won 51 times on the PGA Tour, making him one of just seven players with 50 wins or more. The Hall of Famer (inducted in 1978) won five Vardon Trophies for low scoring average, captured three major championships and was the first in tour history to surpass $200,000 in earnings in one season.

He was also a member of eight U.S. Ryder Cup teams and amassed 23½ points, more than any other U.S. player. Before Tiger Woods, only Lee Trevino had matched Casper's five Vardons. And Casper was the PGA player of the year in 1966 and 1970.

But here's the stat that truly should put Casper's greatness in perspective: From 1964 to 1970, he won 27 PGA Tour events -- eight more than Palmer and Player combined and two more than Nicklaus.

"I think [the media] have made it a very enjoyable time for me as I've gotten older," Casper said in a 2006 interview around the time that Woods was becoming the seventh player to surpass 50 wins. "I've received more recognition than when it was going on. I probably appreciate it a lot more now than when I was doing it."

Casper is probably best known for being overlooked. He won at least one tournament a year from 1956 through 1971, and captured six tournaments in 1968 and four each in 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1970.

His three major wins -- the 1959 U.S. Open, the 1966 U.S. Open and the 1970 Masters -- were another factor that likely held him back, as Nicklaus and Palmer hauled in more, and so much emphasis is put on the biggest tournaments.

But Casper played in an era when many players skipped the Open Championship -- he played the tournament only five times, his best finish a fourth in his first appearance in 1968.

"Billy didn't get a fair shake," Hall of Famer Johnny Miller once said.

A good bit of that had to do with IMG, which promoted Palmer, Nicklaus and Player in those days. And some of it had to do with Casper himself. He seemed distant, a loner. He played methodically, and showed little emotion.

"[Ben] Hogan was an idol," he said. "I sort of patterned my way of playing after him."

A tactician on the course, he wasn't bold like Palmer, not powerful like Nicklaus. When he won the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Casper needed 114 putts. At one point, he had nine consecutive 1-putt greens.

"I have said many times that during my career, when I looked up at a leaderboard, I wasn't just looking to see where a Palmer or a Player or Trevino was. I was looking to see where Billy Casper was," Nicklaus said Saturday night in a Facebook post. "Billy had tremendous confidence. He just believed in himself. You knew when you played against Billy Casper, Billy would not beat himself.

"You want to talk about someone who could perform under pressure, if you wanted someone to get up and down for you, Billy Casper was your man. I think it is fair to say that Billy was probably under-rated by those who didn't play against him. Those who did compete again him, knew how special he was."

In keeping with form, Casper's greatest victory is usually remembered for who lost. It was at the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, where Casper overcame a 7-stroke deficit with nine holes to play to tie Palmer. Casper then defeated Palmer the next day in an 18-hole playoff after trailing by 2 shots at the turn.

"That's probably the one that stands out in the mind of everybody, and of course, me, too," Casper said in the 2001 interview. "To be 7 shots behind with nine holes to play ... it's almost unheard of. Then to be 2 shots behind in the playoff and catch Arnold on the 11th hole and go on and win pretty soundly ... it really was a great, great thrill and most unbelievable experience."

When Casper was winning so much, his feats were taken for granted. Sam Snead (82 wins), Nicklaus (73), Hogan (64), Palmer (62) and Byron Nelson (52) either played with him or before him.

The only player to reach 50 victories since is Woods (who has 79) and the only other active player who is close is Phil Mickelson with 42.

Was Casper underrated? Undoubtedly.