Trailing Arnold Palmer by seven strokes after 63 holes of the 1966 U.S. Open, Billy Casper said that he had a small epiphany as he walked to the 10th tee.
"My thoughts went back to my spending time with the service men in Vietnam back in February of that year," said Casper, following his being bestowed Wednesday evening with the 2010 PGA Distinguished Service Award, The PGA of America's most prestigious honor. "I thought that of all the brave young men I met, who were suffering far greater than me, and felt suddenly renewed. I felt that I could do something special."
Casper went on to post a 32 on the back side, forged a tie with Palmer and then defeated him by four strokes the following day in an 18-hole playoff.
It was during that 1966 Vietnam visit, where Casper spent 16 days with the troops, that he received a gift.
"A young African-American soldier said he recognized me right away. After we had talked a bit, he said that he had something for me," said Casper, with his voice slightly breaking. "He reached into a drawer and pulled out a 50-cent piece that was black. It had a hole drilled in the middle of it that you could wear around your neck. I was touched by it, and I'm still touched. It was his prize possession and he gave it to me."
The story, one of many by Casper related about his life, his faith and his family, mesmerized an audience of 750 at Kohler Memorial Theatre.
The 79-year-old Casper, one of golf's greatest players, won three major championships among 51 PGA Tour titles, and extended his career with a commitment to America's youth.
Casper, who began competing on the PGA Tour full-time in 1955, and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1978, said that "giving back to the game has been an important ingredient in my life."
Casper also recalled the emotional distress that the family underwent when one of his 11 children – David – went astray, stemming from a dependency, Casper said, on "narcotics." David Casper is now serving a life sentence in a Utah penitentiary.
"As difficult as it has been for us," said Casper, "there has come some peace. One of the leaders of our church visited David, who asked if he could study the Scriptures. He was then asked if he would use the Casper name when speaking to a larger audience of the church. He thought about it for a few days, and then consented."
Casper said that there is a mantra in his life that keeps him energized.
"If you can help anyone in any way," he said, "that is what we are here for. The pinnacle of my life has really been two lives – golf and service to my fellow man."
In 1992, Casper began the Billy Casper Youth Foundation, or "Billy's Kids," of which beneficiaries include: the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Diego; Junior Achievement of San Diego; the Music Machine, a mixed show choir that has performed in 13 countries and four continents; the Down Syndrome Connection; Primary Children's Medical Center; the Hassan II Billy Casper Moroccan Junior Golf Academy; the San Diego Junior Golf Association; the Boys and Girl Scouts of America; the South Bay YMCA and "Christina Smiles," the Champions Tour Wives Youth Dental Clinic.
At a reception for Casper, one of the guests stopped the golf legend and asked if he could give him a gift. It was Major Ed Pulido (Ret.) of Edmond, Okla., the senior vice president of program and military affairs for the Folds of Honor Foundation, and someone who lost a right leg during his tour of duty in Iraq. Pulido gave Casper his Purple Heart lapel pin.
"When I was in a hospital all torn up and in a daze, I was greeted by President (George W.) Bush, who gave me the encouragement that I would be getting well again and helping others," said Pulido, who then looked Casper in the eye.
"Billy, I was given encouragement by my Commander in Chief. Tonight, you became my Commander in Chief."
The PGA Distinguished Service Award, inaugurated in 1988, honors outstanding individuals who display leadership and humanitarian qualities, including integrity, sportsmanship and enthusiasm for the game of golf.
PGA Distinguished Service Award Recipients:
1988 - Herb Graffis
1989 - Bob Hope
1990 - No recipient
1991 - The Hon. Gerald Ford
1992 - Gene Sarazen
1993 - Byron Nelson
1994 - Arnold Palmer
1995 - Patty Berg
1996 - Frank Chirkinian
1997 - The Hon. George H.W. Bush
1998 - Paul Runyan
1999 - Bill Dickey
2000 - Jack Nicklaus
2001 - Mark McCormack
2002 - Tim Finchem
2003 - Vince Gill
2004 - Pete Dye
2005 - Wally Uihlein
2006 - Fred Ridley
2007 - Jack Burke Jr.
2008 - Dennis Walters
2009 - William Powell
2010 - Billy Casper