Casper still smitten with Augusta

If you want to know who will win the year's first major in April, Billy Casper has a lock-solid prediction.

The 1970 Masters champ is as certain about his pick as the common knowledge that on Sunday's back nine at Augusta someone on the leaderboard will plunk one into the water on the par-3 12th. Or go for the par-5 13th in 2 and find Rae's Creek instead. Or 3-putt one or more of the greens that are so devilish.

Growing up in Southern California, Casper always believed the U.S. Open was the greatest golf tournament. That changed in 1957, when he earned his first invitation to the Masters.

"It bit me right off the bat," he said in an interview from his home near Provo, Utah.

The man who is seventh on the PGA Tour wins list -- with 51, including three majors -- and is as widely remembered as the guy on the $10 bill (Alexander Hamilton), still remains smitten with Augusta National five decades later.

"When I drive into Augusta and down Magnolia Lane, there's just a spirit and nostalgia about it that you experience nowhere else," the 77-year-old Casper said. "Why? Because it's the same place every year."

As much as he loves Augusta National, and as good a putter as he was -- Casper remains on a short list of the all-time best -- it took him 13 years to win there, and he only won once.

"It just takes a number of years of experience there in order to become a winner. You have to romance the course," he said.

By that, he means you have to learn each part of every fairway, every green, and especially, all of the terrain around those tricky greens.

Sometimes even that's not enough. That's because there are nuances about the course that require stellar course management skills, a lights-out short game and patience, patience, patience. Which is the reason, according to Casper, Lee Trevino never cared for the place and never won there -- "he was not psychologically prepared" -- and why Greg Norman encountered one heartbreak after another.

It's also a big part of the reason why, other than the first two years of the tournament in 1934 and '35, only one Masters rookie, Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, has won at Augusta.

This year, at least 15 players will make their Augusta debut. Casper's advice to the first-timers? Find a veteran or two to practice with every day and pick their brains.

Casper will be in Augusta, Ga., in early April as he has for all but one of the past 52 years. The memories are firmly rooted in his internal journal, where every significant round he has ever played remains logged. He recalled his annual match with the late Masters chairman and Augusta co-founder Clifford Roberts. The two became so close that when Casper walked off the 18th green in 1970 after beating Gene Littler in the last 18-hole playoff, Roberts was one of the first people to greet him.

"He never said congratulations," Casper recalled. "He said, 'Thank you. Thank you.' He wanted me to win for a number of years, and I finally accomplished it. It's something I'll never forget."

One of Casper's most cherished Augusta memories is perhaps the oddest. In 2004 at the age of 72, he shot 106 in his last competitive round there. The day included a 14 on the par-3 16th, where he dumped five balls in the pond. Casper had promised his grandchildren, who had never seen him play there, a chance to watch him tee it up.

"[Afterwards] one of my grandsons said, 'He went out and played no matter what score he shot. He played,'" Casper said.

For Casper, the day ranked right there with his win. So the scorecard, the ball and the glove are displayed in the Masters memorabilia room he maintains in his home.

So how did the man who won the Harry Vardon Trophy for low scoring average five times in the 1960s live a life of virtual golfing anonymity?

Casper believes a split with the late Mark McCormack, the IMG founder, was a key factor in his remaining nearly invisible during the prime years of a career that spanned four decades.

McCormack signed Arnold Palmer as his first client in 1960. Soon after, Palmer became one of the country's most recognized -- and wealthiest -- athletes. Casper signed on with Dick Taylor, McCormack's former partner. Taylor, who was no McCormack, eventually quit the promotion game, leaving Casper without anyone to hype the man and his considerable accomplishments.

When you watched Casper play during his heyday, he lacked the fiery demeanor and on-course charisma of a Palmer or Gary Player or the presence of Jack Nicklaus. That trio -- affectionately referred to as the Big Three -- won every Masters between 1960 and 1966.

Outwardly, Casper never paid much attention to the hoopla surrounding his chief rivals. He just went about beating them more often than people realize.

Last year, at a Champion's Tour pro-am, Casper was asked to sign a media guide from the 1980s.

He glanced at his career stats.

"I had never done that before," he said.

What he discovered was that from 1958 to '68, he never finished lower than fourth on the money list -- except for the one year he was injured.

From 1964 to '70, Casper won 27 times on tour. That's three more wins than Nicklaus in the same period. And seven more than Palmer and Player combined.

Casper also was a two-time player of the year and competed on eight Ryder Cup teams. He remains No. 1 in points earned by any American player in the biennial event.

Famously, Casper came from 7 down against Palmer on the back nine to force a playoff at the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. He beat Palmer in the 18-hole playoff the next day. Palmer never won another major.

"In my mind, [he] is the most underrated golfer of all time, hands down," Johnny Miller said on Casper's golf company's Web site.

Casper, after reading the media guide that day, said even he was surprised at his achievements.

"It was quite astounding to me. I knew I had played well, but I didn't realize I had played that well."

The Casper from the golf course back in the day is not the Casper on the phone. He's as engaging a person as you'll meet -- one who laughs frequently, has a sharp wit, and who revels in sharing old tales.

For instance, Casper was 16 when he followed Ben Hogan around San Diego Country Club during an exhibition. He marveled at Hogan's course management skills and vowed to adopt a similar approach to his fledging game.

"If I had never seen Hogan play in that exhibition, I might never have amounted to much in golf," Casper once said.

By the time Casper joined the tour in 1956 after a stint in the U.S. Navy, he and his wife Shirley had begun a family that would grow to 11 children -- six of them adopted. As a result, Casper said he approached the game differently than many of his peers. He didn't dwell on personal achievements. He didn't focus on winning majors. He never considered what he needed to do to affix his place in the game's history.

"My priority," he said, "was to have enough funds to take care of my family."

The strategy, which he believes allowed him to play pressure-free golf, worked. In 1968, Casper became the first player to win $200,000 in a year. But that same strategy has led to a significant regret. He only played in four British Opens -- the first in 1968 at Carnoustie, where he finished third, 3 shots behind Player.

"I felt like the two weeks I needed to go over there, I could stay here and make a substantial amount of money," he explained.

Player believes the lack of an international schedule hurt Casper's earning potential.

"I love Billy Casper, and I admire him," Player said. "I am a big fan. He had one of the best short games I've ever seen. But the reason he was not more [popular] was that he didn't play in tournaments all over the world like me, Jack [Nicklaus] and Arnie [Palmer]."

While Casper might wish he spent more time at the British Open, he definitely takes advantage of being able to take in the sights at every year's first major.

So when the 2009 edition of the Masters begins on April 9, you'll find Casper under the umbrellas near the first tee, joined by members of his considerable family and assorted friends. If you're lucky enough to have a ticket, stop by and say hello. Ask him who he thinks is going to win.

"If [Tiger Woods] can win the [U.S.] Open on one leg, with it mended, watch out," he said. "I think he'll be better than ever."

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.