In Chula Vista with Traveling Homebody Billy Casper
By Tom Blair
WOULD YOU CALL A MAN who’s spent most of the last 42 years on the road a homebody? Would you call his life story Roots?
If the man were the legendary golfer Billy Casper, you might well. To Casper—a touring pro since 1954, and still on the road with the Senior PGA Tour—home and family have always been priority one. And clearly Billy was home some. There is the matter of all those children.
These days, home for Billy and his wife, Shirley, is a two-story custom house in a gated section of Chula Vista’s EastLake, bordering Otay Lake. The simplicity of the home’s Craftsman-style exterior—with flat surfaces, squared windows and an occasional arch—is utterly in contrast to the interior, with its unexpectedly ornate style. The foyer commands attention with massive silver pieces displayed on an enormous carved sideboard. Oil portraits of Middle Eastern magnates, friends of the family, add a lavish touch.
The impression is of complexity—of homeowners with multiple interests, and with each interest or enthusiasm awarded a space to declare its importance.
The 11 children (six boys, five girls) all are grown now, but the chances of finding the Caspers’ 4,000-square-foot home an empty nest are next to nil. And when one of the 11 children or 12 grandchildren isn’t around, there are the photographs.
“This isn’t a house,” said a new friend on her first visit to the Casper home. “This is a three-dimensional scrapbook.”
It’s just possible Billy Casper’s devotion to home grew out of a nomadic early childhood. “I went to the third grade at six different schools around San Diego County,” he remembers. “Consequently, I flunked the third grade.”
But when he was 9, the family put down in Chula Vista, bringing young Billy Casper a new stability and opening up a new world of golf. Though he first puttered around with a golf club at 41/2, “in the cow pastures of my grandfather’s home in New Mexico,” Billy was hooked by the game after he started caddying at Chula Vista’s San Diego Country Club. “Gene Littler and I are both grads of the Junior Golf program here,” he says proudly.
Chula Vista also brought Billy his life’s companion. He and Shirley met at a Chula Vista High School basketball game when she was a sophomore, new to the school, and he was a senior. Most surely a fated meeting. If Billy had passed third grade the first time through, they might never have met.
“We went to the school dance after the game,” Shirley recalls. “The next night he asked me to go to the movies, and my mother said yes. That night, he asked me to go steady. I never went out with another boy—before Bill or since. We’ve been married 44 years.”
“We’re in our 45th year of marriage,” Billy prefers.
The story of those 44-plus years lines the walls of every room of the Casper home, sits on each table and bookshelf and perches on every mantel. Oversize color family portraits march up the staircase wall. Upstairs it’s the same, with photos and memorabilia vying for space on every wall.
People and events clearly take precedence over any sense of careful decor. It’s a home just made for 11 children. And it would be an absolute horror to dust.
“The house is eclectic,” Shirley concedes. “I don’t know how many photographs we have. But our 6-year-old grandson, Mason, came out of our bedroom not too long ago and said, ‘Nana, you have 157 pictures of the family in there.’ Of course,” she says, “we’ve added two since then.
“And we still have a storage shed full of pictures and plaques and memorabilia from Bill’s career. It’s going to the new Hall of Champions in Balboa Park,” she promises.
In the early years of the marriage, before the children started school, the family followed Billy on the PGA tour full-time. “But when they started going to school,” says Shirley, “we stopped.”
Billy gives Shirley the credit for keeping the family bonds tight. “It’s very difficult,” he says. “And she’s an exceptional individual. I’ve often said that if she were in the business world, she’d be the CEO of a major company. Running a family like this is a business.”
Even after the children started school, the brood would catch up with Dad on the Tour from time to time. “My kids are great communicators,” Billy says fondly. “And I think that comes from having the opportunity to travel with me and meet so many people. And I’ve had all of my sons caddy for me on the Tour. A couple of them caddied for me five or six years. Three sons caddied for me at the Masters.
“I’ve had sons who traveled with me internationally, and I’ve won tournaments with them caddying for me. So we’ve had lots of wonderful experiences.”
When he isn’t touring, Billy Casper is still a man on the move. A religious family, the Caspers have traveled 10 times to Israel. “We Mormons believe we’re of the Tribe of Joseph. And Israelis are of the Tribe of Judah. So we’re cousins. We go to Israel to visit the cousins,” Billy says. He’s also developed a strong bond with the king of Morocco.
“A friend recommended me as one of the players he thought the king would enjoy a round of golf with, that we might become friends. That was 1969. And the first year I went back six times. I don’t know whether the friendship took or not,” Casper quips.
Shirley and Billy always planned a large family, but after their third child, Robert, was born in 1960, they were told there would be no more Casper children.
“And then,” Shirley says, “a friend, a doctor in La Mesa, called one day and said, ‘I just delivered a beautiful boy, and he’s yours if you want him.’ And we did. Then, three months later, he called again and said, ‘I just delivered beautiful twin girls, and they’re yours if you want them.’ And we did. Two years later, we adopted another boy, and then another girl.”
And then, surprise. More than 15 years after the birth of Robert, Shirley gave birth to another child, a daughter.
“That’s why we have a Sarah,” says Billy. “If you remember the Bible, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, finally conceived after 90 years. It didn’t take Shirley quite so long, but that’s why we named our new daughter Sarah.” The next year, Shirley gave birth to Tommy. That brought the total to one shy of a dozen: five by birth, six adopted.
Despite the Caspers’ strong ties to Chula Vista, there was a time when the family defected to Utah. “The kids like to ski,” says Billy. “They were in the mountains all the time anyway. And some of the kids were at Brigham Young University. This was in 1974, during the energy crisis, and I thought it would be nice to have a farm and be self-sufficient and all those things you sort of dream of.
“We wound up buying a ranch with 6,000 trees—with cherries and peaches. And we worked it, and the kids worked it. And the kids raised animals. And all those things happened.”
Fourteen years later, with Billy Casper back on the tour—the Seniors Tour, this time—the family returned to San Diego and warm weather. “I needed to be where I could be practicing and work on my game and stay in shape. Sorta-shape.” Billy chuckles, patting his successful-man’s stomach.
And then, he says, it was “the roots. The friends. I have a relationship just a few miles west of here at San Diego Country Club, where I’m still an honorary member. I have a lot of friends there, where I started caddying so many years ago. And to have this affiliation with EastLake is so good. [Casper serves in a promotional capacity for the developer of EastLake.] This is just a great place to live out here. And I can just go out my back door and play golf.
“It’s home. It’s been home for years and years and years. It’s just like I’ve always done. I’ve always been coming back home.”