"Good playing, Billy," said Rod Curl, the only Indian on the pro golf tour.
"I'm still in it, anyway," Billy Casper, the only father of 10 on the pro golf tour.
"You're how many over?" Curl said.
"Five," said Casper, adding with a smile, "And I had seven bogeys on the back nine today."
Curl rocked back on his heels.
"I parred one of the last 10 holes," Casper said.
"Still good playing," Curl said, recovering.
"At least I'm still in the tournament. A lot of guys aren't." Casper smiled again.
Because grace counts for almost everything in golf, Billy Casper's presence in this week's U.S. Open is glad news. Few men ever swung a golf club so truly, so prettily. Fewer tasted the sweet wine of success and were better for it. Only Arnold Palmer won $1 million in golf before Billy Casper did. Only a handful of men have won the U.S. Open two times, as Casper has, and only Gary Player has matched Casper's achievement of winning major championships in three decades.
Yet when the United States Golf Association, in an unusual move, invited Palmer, Casper and Severiano Ballestros to play here without first qualifying, there was criticism of the exemptions.
Palmer was a special case, for he became immortal with an Open victory here in 1960. But Ballesteros? A 21-year-old Spaniard? Get lost, Sam Snead. And Billy Casper? For three years, he has done nothing except change diapers. And he gets a pass into the world's best tournament?
Defenders of tradition, in reply, asked who ought to be invited if not a two-time champion whose game has been remarkable forever. Five times he had the tour's low stroke average. Eight times he made the Ryder Cup team, marking him as one of the tour's top 10 players for a span of 20 seasons.
It was nice, then, that Casper shot an even-par 71 the first day. And even with all those bogeys yesterday (more about them later), he had a 76. He'll be 47 years old a week from today and he won't win here. He hasn't won on tour in three years and he's not ready now. But in these two days, Casper sees a new beginning.
In fact, he even sees the ball.
No small thing, that. Until three weeks ago, Casper couldn't see the fairway. From the fairway, he couldn't see the green. On the green, the cup was a fuzzy shadow. When Casper drove a ball, the first thing he'd do is ask his caddy. "Is that in the fairway?" Another question he asked a lot was. "Where's the flagstick?"
"I went to get my driver's license renewed three weeks ago in Mapleton, Utah, and they wouldn't give it to me," Casper said.
"They said I was blind."
Casper couldn't read the signs on the visual test. He couldn't read the letters on an eye chart. At the optomertist's office, they said his vision was 20/80. So at 200 yards from the green, say, Casper could see what a person with normal would see from 800 yards.
"The eye doctor said, 'How can you play golf when you can't see?'" Casper said.
"I spent all my time looking like this," Casper said. He narrowed his eyes into thin slits. "Always squiting," he said. "The last 10 years, I've been squiting."
Why not go the optometrist sooner?
"I just thought that's the way the world's supposed to look," he said, smiling. "And I'd won a million dollars hitting it blind."So three weeks ago, Billy Casper bought contact lenses. He dropped out of tournaments at Charlotte and Memphis because he didn't have the lenses. This week is his first tournament with the new eyes, and it has been a revelation.
"What's so exciting is playing in sunlight," he said. "I can almost see the dimples on the ball as it flies through the air. The sunlight on the ball - now I can see it shining on top of the ball, with a shady side on bottom. It's helped by depth perception and everything. I see things I couldn't see before. Like the flagstick."
After his first-day 71, which left him two shots behind the leader. Casper moved one shot under par through 27 holes. Then the wheels came off. A hard-heart suggested that Casper's contact lenses may have fallen out. Casper had no explanation for the outbreak of bogeys, save to say, "It seemed like I was hitting it well, but it was going under trees."
Casper made an eagle at the third hole yesterday, sending a 90-yard wedge shot into the hole. And he ran in a 30-foot putt for a birdie at the ninth. There followed six straight bogeys. Among other indiscretions. Casper put a tee shot under a thorn push, rapped a ground ball with an iron and blumpfed a wedge into a lake.
This litany of frustration was interrupted only by a birdie at the 16th hole, where Casper, always a wonderful putter, made a 10-footer. His only par in nearly three hours came at the 18th.
Casper is no matinee idol of the fairways. He once was called "Buffalo Billy." ostensibly because allegies forced him to a diet of buffalo meat; unkind souls said the nickname grew from Casper's substantial girth. He has this stomach that renders his belt invisible. He also wears a baseball-type cap pulled low over his failing eyes.
But as he moved around the course yesterday, the paying customers called to him in encouragement and praise. Sooner or later, we all are 47 and the eyes go bad, and here is Billy Casper, aiming to win one of the world's great sports events.
"I'm honored and grateful to have been invited." Casper said, "All I want to do is play well enough to justify the USGA's invitation."
He has done that. He's three shots behind Ballesteros, for ahead of Palmer. "Don't ask embarrassing questions," he said kindly to someone wondering when Casper last contended on tour. He won at New Orleans in 1975, but has earned only pocket money of $80,000 since. "I won the Mexican Open last year - against a good field," he said.
Casper says he plans to play at least 25 tournaments a year for the next six or severn years. That would make him 54 years old. We should not doubt the man. Of his 10 children, four have been born in the last four years.