By the time of the 1961 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, Gene Littler, not quite 31, had already experienced what is commonly known as a roller-coaster career. What he could not have known was that his ride would become much longer and ever bumpier.
When the young sailor from San Diego turned pro on Jan. 27, 1954, he was already a national golfing phenom, often being heralded as the next Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson or Sam Snead. He had been a national junior and the 1953 U.S. Amateur champion, titles he won with a swing that was nearly flawless. Earlier in January, on duty in the Navy and as an amateur, he had also outplayed a field of top professionals to win the 1954 San Diego Open. In one of his first tournaments as a professional, he came within a stroke of winning the 1954 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, losing on the last hole to veteran Ed Furgol. In January 1955 he would win the prestigious Los Angeles Open. And while still in his 20's he would win the Tournament of Champions, in Las Vegas, three years running, from 1955 to '57.
Ever amiable, shirking publicity and with a self-deprecating sense of humor, he quickly established himself among his PGA confreres as one of the most popular players on Tour, even though, as a teetotaler and devoted family man, he generally eschewed the off-course high jinks so prevalent in those carefree days.
Then, as it will in golf, something went terribly wrong. The mechanically perfect swing developed a nasty glitch after that last Tournament of Champions win. A golfer who even on a bad day rarely missed a fairway was now afflicted with a worrisome hook. Littler didn't win again in 1957 or in all of 1958, his earnings for that gloomy year dropping to a measly—even for those less lucrative times—$12,897. In dismay, he sought the counsel of Paul Runyan, a top player in the 1920s and '30s who was the teaching pro at Littler's home course, the La Jolla (Calif.) Country Club. Runyan changed Littler's grip, repositioning his right hand, and suddenly Littler was back on track. He won the 1959 Phoenix Open, his first Tour victory in 21 months, and took four more tournaments that year. In 1959, and for the following three years, he finished among the top-10 money winners.
Oddly enough, despite the dramatic comeback, he was largely ignored by the golfing public. If Arnie, his contemporary, had his Army, Littler was barely able to muster up a platoon. He was Gene the Machine, a quiet, colorless craftsman who, in his own words, liked "to get the job done and get out of there." Even in his peak years, Littler rarely played more than two tournaments in succession and never more than three, preferring to flee the excitement for the comfort of his La Jolla home and the company of his wife, Shirley, and their two children, Curt and Suzanne.
"When I thought I'd earned enough," he once explained, "I'd just go home and stay there awhile. Who knows how much more successful I might have been if I'd had a different attitude, if I'd been more like Palmer? But with me the top priority was always my family."
"He adored his children," says Shirley, who became Mrs. Gene Littler in January 1951, when she was 19 and he 20. They had begun dating after sharing a history class at San Diego State. "Gene has always wanted a simple life. The thing he likes least is attention."
Littler, wrote SPORTS ILLUSTRATED golf writer Alfred Wright, "seems to embrace anonymity." And, wrote San Diego sportswriter Jack Murphy in The Sporting News, "He is largely content because he doesn't equate fame with happiness." Slightly built, a conservative dresser by golf's popinjay standards and with a handsome enough but mostly unremarkable face, Littler was no gate attraction. "He hated the limelight," says fellow San Diegan Billy Casper. "A friend of mine once described him as a shining light in a bushel basket."
And so, entering the final round of the '61 Open at Oakland Hills, virtually lost among a pack of golfers in pursuit of leader Doug Sanders, Littler made his run for the championship almost completely unnoticed. His gallery on the 3rd hole, from a crowd of some 20,000, was exactly seven. By the 13th, which he birdied to take a three-stroke lead over a faltering Sanders, it had increased to 100. Littler didn't realize until the 16th that he was leading. He came to 18 with a two-stroke lead over Bob Goalby, who was already in the clubhouse, and Sanders, who was playing two holes behind him. He knew a bogey would leave the door open for Sanders, but a bogey is what he got, after his second shot plopped into a bunker to the left of the green. Sanders, however, didn't catch him, and Littler won with a 281.
The future seemed impossibly bright, but the 1961 Open turned out to be Littler's only win of a major. He hit another inexplicable slump, failing to win at all in '63 and '64, but again he fought his way free, winning the 1965 Canadian Open and the '66 World Series of Golf. In '66 he finished among the top five in seven tournaments. And in the 1970 Masters he tied Casper at the end of regulation play, only to lose an 18-hole playoff to the friend he had known from his days of San Diego junior golf as a "duck-hooking roly-poly kid." Casper, who by then had supplanted Littler as their hometown's favorite golfing son, finished the playoff round with a 69, having one-putted six of the first nine holes. Littler went quietly with a 74.