AUGUSTA, Ga. - Give Billy Casper a tip of the cap for finishing the most embarrassing round of golf in Masters history — even if he didn’t hand in his scorecard.
"(The scorecard) is in my pocket, and I’m going to frame it,’’ said the goodnatured Casper, who withdrew following his 34-over-par 106 in Thursday’s opening round at Augusta National.
Asked why he kept going as the numbers kept piling up, the 73-year-old Casper replied: "My kids and my grandkids wanted me to play, and I wanted to play one more time.’’
As golf goes, this was hard to watch, as it turned into a spectacle that concluded late in the day with Casper conducting a press conference before a media mob. And it rekindled the great debate over whether or not past champions should be allowed to play in this major championship as long as they want.
Even though Casper couldn’t break 100, his score will not go down in infamy because he didn’t turn in the card. Still, everyone who witnessed his wake will remember that:
• Casper’s 106 was even more of a debacle than the 95 recorded by Charles Kunkle in 1956.
• Casper’s nine-hole score on the back nine — 57 — blew away the 49 previously recorded by five players.
• And Casper’s 14 at the par-3 16th, where he stubbed five straight shots into the pond before finally clearing it, brought back memories of the notorious 13s posted by Tom Weiskopf (at No. 12) and Tommy Nakajima (No. 13).
"I was bound and determined to hit a ball on that green,’’ said Casper, who started his fiasco from 170 yards with a rescue club, switched to a 7-iron for the next three tee shots, and finally found land with a 6-iron.
"The score doesn’t mean anything,’’ Casper said shortly after — take your pick — withdrawing or being disqualified.
Hard as it is to agree with Masters chairman Hootie Johnson, the brazen leader of the "toon-a-ment,’’ as Hootie likes to call it, Johnson might have a point about limiting how many years past champions are allowed to play. As you may remember, three years ago he sent out letters to Casper, Doug Ford and Gay Brewer discouraging them from playing, while simultaneously putting a cap of 65 years on past champions’ eligibility.
While that move was perceived as a positive step to strengthen the Masters field, others — most notably Gary Player — felt it was a classic case of age discrimination. Besides, Player contended, they were breaking a promise made earlier by the late Clifford Roberts, who said anyone to win a green jacket could play in this storied event as long as they desired.
A few months later, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus negotiated a deal with Johnson to do away with the 65-year-old barrier and allow past champions to continue competing as long as they were physically able to complete at least 36 holes.
It was unofficially called "the Doug Ford rule,’’ as Ford kept entering the event and then dropping out after three, nine, or 18 holes. In all, Ford withdrew seven times in a 10-year span. Even Casper had a couple of WD’s behind his name after playing just 18 holes in 1999 and 2000.
Ford and Brewer finally decided to hang up the spikes, as did Palmer after playing in his 50th Masters last year. But Casper, who did not enter the last three Masters because of a hip problem, decided to return this year after getting the hip repaired and losing 60 pounds for what he said was his "swan song.’’
Unfortunately, Casper’s song went so wrong it turned into a dirge. By the time he reached the front nine (he started on the back due to a two-tee start caused by rain), he was drawing a macabre gallery intent on watching his personal train wreck.
But Casper kept chugging along, even when some thought he would quit after the 57 on the back nine. Especially when the groups stacked up at the No. 1 tee and Casper headed for the clubhouse.
"It’s going to slow my momentum,’’ he deadpanned to a security guard.
It’s hard to rip a guy like Billy, who during the 1960s won more tournaments than Nicklaus, Palmer or Player. In fact, Casper’s 51 career wins, which includes the 1970 Masters, ranks him fourth on the PGA Tour’s all-time list.
At the same time, the Masters is too prestigious of a major championship for clowning around, and why allow him to slow up play and take a spot that could go to a player like Colin Montgomerie, who was not invited this year after 13 straight appearances?
Hey, Augusta National is difficult enough for the game’s best players. Just ask Paul Casey, who made a quintuplebogey 10 at the 13th hole — and he only hit two balls in the water!
Still, when people are cracking one-liners like, "Well, I see Billy Casper beat his age — on the back nine!,’’ it’s time to break with tradition. As much as you hate to say it, Hootie was right when he said 65 is a reasonable age to retire from the Masters.