From Green to Green

How Billy Casper, one of golf’s founding fathers, has watched his grandson Mason grow the game at UVU.

By Matt Reichman
UVU Magazine, Spring 2012 

In 1955, golf legend Billy Casper played in his first PGA tournament, pocketing $33.33 for a top-30 finish — not a bad haul for a Navy enlistee accustomed to making half that for twice the hours, albeit nothing like the payouts to be had on tour nowadays. It was a different game back then, Casper says. The total yearly purse for the entire PGA Tour was less than $750,000, and forget about TAG Heuer watch endorsements. Even the players themselves were different — not really what you’d call athletes, he says, recalling how peculiar his occasional roommate Gary Player seemed for puffing out pushups in the evenings.

There were no private jets or lush resorts in Dubai. They lived more like a garage band on tour, playing as many gigs as they could to keep the lights on back home. And the equipment nowadays, with fancy shaft bend profiles and aerodynamic ball dimples? Casper gets wistful just imagining swapping out Bobby Jones’ old hickory sticks for modern gear.

“We grew with the tour,” he says, noting it took him a full 14 years to total $1 million in tourney winnings (the only one to get there faster was Arnold Palmer).

Now, more than a half-century later, Casper is witnessing his grandson Mason grow the game in his own right at Utah Valley University. The sophomore is nearing the end of only his first full season on the UVU Golf Team, yet he’s already spent time ranked in the NCAA’s national top 10. [Possible stats update here after March; see below.] And just as granddad labored to establish the PGA Tour in the sports world, Mason is elevating UVU’s status in the collegiate world. Back when Billy started swinging the wrenches in the 50s, UVU was just a tiny Provo campus called Central Utah Vocational School. Now, with more than 33,000 students enrolled, it’s the largest institution in the Utah System of Higher Education.

And Mason’s game, along with the Casper name, is poised to push UVU’s reputation higher still.

Unsung heroes

Hype and history have a way of occasionally sidestepping extraordinary people for no apparent reason. Billy Casper, though certainly revered, isn’t mentioned today with quite the same reverence as Palmer, Nicklaus and Player.

“A lot of people say I’m the most underrated golfer that ever played,” Casper says.

Yet he won 51 PGA Tour events, including three majors — the 1970 Masters and the U.S. Open in 1959 and 1966. He was a member of eight Ryder Cup teams and the captain of another, and received the 2010 PGA Distinguished Service Award.

“I got my share, but it wasn’t like the big three,” Casper says of his fame (hence the name of his newly released book, “The Big Three and Me”). “From ’64 to ’70, I won more tournaments than Jack Nicklaus, and many more than Player and Palmer put together,” he says. “I was sort of the predominant player of the 60s.”

Just like his grandfather, Mason is well acquainted with flying under the radar, despite his legendary last name.

As one might expect of a boy with his lineage — his father, Bob, is also a golf pro and host of the nationally syndicated Real Golf Radio program — Mason took to the links at an early age. When he was 8, Mason started accompanying his older brother, Ashton — who later played golf at UVU and graduated in 2010 — to Provo’s East Bay Golf Course.

“We’d be there all day, every day,” says Mason, a Springville, Utah, native. “That went on for about four summers. We played a lot of golf.”

This led Mason to a decent run with the golf teams at Springville Junior High and Springville High School, with a few blips of brilliance at junior tournaments after that.

Lest you think Mason ever traded on the Casper name, this is the part where his predestined meteoric rise became something much less than meteoric. He didn’t see much in the way of recruiting — a phone call from UTEP here, an email from the University of Utah there — but it would have been moot anyway, as the NCAA Clearinghouse soon ruled Mason ineligible as a student athlete due to a misunderstanding over a single math credit.

Two years later, having completed a church mission to Chile, Mason found himself in the same boat, still discouraged by the yearlong process required to obtain NCAA eligibility.

“My priority wasn’t golf; it wasn’t going anywhere,” Mason recalls. He played casually, but dedicated most of his time to security system sales. The occasional amateur tournament served as a painful reminder of what could have been: “I’m playing against college kids that practice every day. I play once a week and I’m still competing with them — what if I practiced every day?”

Fortunately, his girlfriend at the time (now wife), Chelsea, foresaw the agonizing regret that would have plagued her gifted and hyper-competitive husband should he deny himself the old college try. At Chelsea’s urging, he dusted off the clubs, enrolled full-time at UVU, and a year later, UVU’s Chris Curran, then in his inaugural year as the men’s golf coach, took in the newly eligible Mason as a walk-on.

“(The process) was frustrating, but in a lot of ways, it was kind of good that he was away from golf because I think that made him want it more,” Bob says.

Likewise, Billy looks back on his underappreciated body of work as a motivating factor. He thinks the lack of publicity forced him to play harder and smarter, helping him become one of the game’s greatest virtuosos of course management — skills, he says, that have made their way into Mason’s repertoire.

The program changer

When Mason first set foot in Curran’s office in December 2010, the new coach didn’t know a thing about him, except that he had a decent resume and a famous grandfather.

“I really liked his attitude and could tell he would be a hard worker,” Curran says. “I said I’d give him a shot this semester, see what he brings to the table, and if at the end of the year it didn’t pan out, no big deal.”

Curran’s decision would be vindicated no later than Valentine’s Day, when Mason won his first collegiate tournament, the SUU Pat Hicks Thunderbird Invitational in St. George, Utah, with a 7-under-par.

“I would say 90 percent of the guys out there never win an event in their career; he won his first,” Curran says. “At that moment, I knew we had a superstar on our hands.”

St. George was no fluke — Mason went on to place 5th at both the University of Kentucky Bluegrass Invitational and the America Sky Conference Championship. He torched the field by 10 strokes in the fall season opener, the Battle of the Tetons in Victor, Idaho, with a 14-under par finish.

“He absolutely lit it up. His putter was on fire,” Curran says, adding that, on top of possessing a fluid, old-school swing, Mason is “the best putter I’ve seen in person.”

Better still, Mason’s blowout win contributed to a first-place team finish — its first since 2003, and first ever against a full Division I field. Though golf is an individual sport, a rising tide lifts all boats, and top-notch talent like Mason’s is a program-changer, Curran says. Continued athletic exposure, such as a January Golfweek Magazine feature story on Mason, coupled with UVU’s rise to becoming one of the largest open-admission universities in the country, will only attract more success.

“Growth kind of snowballs,” Curran says, noting that Mason’s confidence rubbed off on his teammates, which brought more top-shelf recruits that are already making an impact. “When I took over two years ago, our team was ranked 227th in the country in Division I. This fall, we got ranked as high as 44th. To grow that much that quick is quite an accomplishment.”

Mason's name is spreading like a virus through UVU's record books. His 14-under finish at the Tetons to open the current season tied the school record for lowest 54-hole total. No UVU men's golfer has ever notched more than two career collegiate tournament wins — Nic Van Vurren ('04-'07) got a pair after four years and 38 tournaments — but Mason won two of his first six. Now he's off to a steady start in the spring slate of the 2012 season. As of this writing, his season scoring average of 71.3 ranks 35th in all of Division I men's golf, and is the lowest season average in UVU golf history. And all while becoming a father to his first son, Urban, in December, and plowing through a degree in business management.

“I enjoy watching the program continue to grow,” says Ashton, who golfed for UVU from 2007-2008. “Even more so, I enjoy watching my brother. Maybe this is self-proclaimed, but I’m probably his biggest fan.”

And what next?

“To be honest with you, Mason is the first person I’ve coached that has a legitimate shot to make it on the PGA tour,” Curran says.

Mason’s had the unique opportunity of watching his grandfather stroll among the big guns at the world’s most prestigious courses, a few times right alongside him as his caddy.

“You get to walk inside the ropes, throw a bib on and listen to him and his friends tell stories,” Mason says. Most grandfathers have their own bag of stories, but how many include that time he outsmarted Bob Rosburg on the third hole at Winged Foot in 1959, or busted Phil Mickelson’s chops in the Augusta Champions Locker Room?

(Interestingly, Billy doesn’t often attend his family’s golf events; after coming down with shingles while caddying for Bob, he found the stress of watching — without being able to step in and take some cuts himself — to be too much to bear.)

The other side of the coin is that Mason has also watched his father, who, though an accomplished pro golfer, never rose to the elite ranks that provide the life of luxury many assume is the norm for golf pros.

“To get to the highest level, you need to eat, drink and sleep golf,” says Mason, who is willing to dedicate the traveling and hours on the course he watched his dad put in. And he’s got a wife who supports him and the moxie to reach for it, so for now, it’s PGA or bust.

The Casper clan sees green

As a San Diego native, Billy didn’t even know UVU existed until he moved to Springville in 1974. But he’s watched this school he never heard of become a common thread in his life and progeny — right up there with golf, in fact. His daughter Sarah ‘11 graduated from UVU in spring 2011, alongside his granddaughter Lauren ‘11, just a year after his grandson Ashton donned his own cap and gown.

With the Caspers, everything seems to be leading either to golf, UVU, or both.

Lauren earned a bachelor of fine arts in graphic design, a “progressive-thinking program that is growing like crazy,” she says. Her aunt Sarah, a single mother of three, graduated in exercise science. She moved from San Diego to attend a school she deemed ideal for her non-traditional education path.

“I was in a geology class with my nephew Ashton, who introduced me as his aunt — ‘Uh, you just aged me,’ I remember thinking — but that’s the kind of atmosphere you have at UVU,” Sarah says. “It’s what makes UVU great — so many different, versatile people come together.”

Next in line of course is Mason, who intends to follow his 2013 graduation with an MBA at UVU. For Bob, seeing his son, daughter and sister graduate from the same place in the space of a year has been phenomenal.

“I can’t say enough about the opportunities that are available there for students as well as athletes,” he says.

“The reputation of UVU just keeps growing,” adds Billy. “You have the leadership of that school and a very solid and sound people dedicated to the principles of building young people to the potential that they have in front of them.”