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Always Game
Ron Fimrite
June 10, 1996
Gene Littler tamed the Monster at the '61 Open, then faced a sterner test
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June 10, 1996

Always Game

Gene Littler tamed the Monster at the '61 Open, then faced a sterner test

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Exactly two years later golf was the last thing on his mind. Survival was the first.

In March 1972, Littler underwent an annual physical examination with the family physician, Dr. Roger Isenhour, who came across a peculiar lump under Littler's left arm. "I don't like the looks of that," he told Littler. A subsequent biopsy confirmed Dr. Isenhour's darkest suspicions: Littler was suffering from a malignant tumor of the lymph gland. Worse yet, it was diagnosed as a melanoma, a virulent type of cancer known to spread with lethal rapidity.

"The first thing you think of is, I'm going to die," Littler recalls. "Then you say, Why me? I never drank or smoked. I watched what I ate. I know people who didn't take care of themselves at all, who did everything wrong, and they were healthy. Just think of it, if I hadn't scheduled the exam when I did, if I'd waited several months or more, well, by that time, I might've been dead."

In April '72, Masters time, he underwent extensive surgery. "The procedure then was to go in and take everything out," he says. Littler lost much of the muscle group on his left side, including a large portion of the pectoral. He realized that he might never be able to play golf again, and he accepted that. He had enjoyed a fine career, had won perhaps the biggest championship of them all and had made hundreds of friends. He still had his family. And now he would have more time to enjoy his collection of cars, which numbered some half dozen and included a 1958 Rolls Silver Cloud. Golf had been his livelihood, his passion, but he could live without it. If he could simply just live.

His rehabilitation from surgery was, at first, agonizingly slow. After the operation, his left arm was all but useless. He regained some movement by exercising with a one-pound barbell. "It was the cutest little thing, but, you know, I couldn't lift it off a table," he says. Then he began exercising with a pulley apparatus in his garage. As the strength gradually returned to his arm, he tried hitting golf balls. "It was hilarious," he says. "I had no control at all." Still, with little hope of playing competitively again, he kept at it.

Wisely, he decided to swing as he always had. "I didn't change a thing. I didn't compensate for those lost muscles, even though I'd always thought of golf as a left-sided game. That's not the case. The left side is merely the leader. The right supplies the power."

That October, only six months after his surgery, he entered the Taiheiyo Masters in Japan, a popular tournament stop at the time, and surprised himself by finishing in the top 10. "Nobody thought I'd ever perform again," he says, "and I still had some doubts. But after Japan, I began to think if I played again, I'd give hope to other cancer patients. I'd been getting letters from all over, and I'd answered them all, just trying to give people some hope. Until Japan, I really didn't know if I could still play competitive golf. Now I thought there was a reason to at least try."

Nine months later, in July 1973, he shot a remarkable 66-66-68-68 to win the St. Louis Children's Hospital Classic. It was the most gratifying and emotional win of his career. "I was ecstatic after winning the Open, of course. But I was absolutely overcome by winning in St. Louis. I realized I was the only player who had ever come back from that kind of surgery."

That year he won the Ben Hogan Award as comeback player of the year and the Bob Jones Award for distinguished accomplishments in golf. He was 43 and still apprehensive about the possible recurrence of his cancer—"they never did find the primary source of that melanoma"—but he seemed to be playing as well as ever. He may have lost some ability in stroking the ball from the rough because of the muscle deprivation on his left side, but the beautiful swing was intact and he was still accurate. "I guess the best you can say about my golf is when I hit it bad, it stays on the course," he once said. "I can always go find [the ball]."

In January 1975 he won the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am and in 1977 he nearly won the PGA Championship at Pebble Beach, losing on the third hole of a sudden-death playoff, the first ever in a major, to Lanny Wadkins, 20 years his junior. At that, Wadkins was lucky, sinking a 12-foot downhill putt on the first extra hole that was hit so hard it most likely would have rolled off the green if it hadn't slammed into the cup. Wadkins's second shot on the second hole caromed off a rock and onto the putting surface.

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