An hour before lunchtime last Saturday it looked very much as if the U.S. Open Championship might go on for another week before a winner could be separated from the nine determined and persistent golfers who were glued together at either par or one-over-par figures. It took another five and a half hours in absolutely ideal golfing weather—warm, sunny and with scarcely a whisper of a breeze—before Gene Littler, the quiet and diffident new champion from La Jolla, Calif., finally grasped the victory with a one-stroke advantage over Doug Sanders and Bob Goalby, a couple of young pros who have worked their way into the front ranks during the last two years.
The finish of this 1961 championship at Oakland Hills had an elusive kind of suspense. With so many players in a position to win, it was just impossible to focus the drama on any particular part of the golf course until the closing hour of the tournament. At the start of the afternoon round Sanders was the only one of the 57 golfers playing the final 36 holes on Saturday to remain at even par. But only a stroke behind him were Goalby, Mike Souchak and Jacky Cupit, an intense young Texan who had joined the touring pros a few months before. And within two to four strokes of Sanders were Doug Ford, Gardner Dickinson, Eric Monti, Bob Rosburg, Allen Geiberger, Bob Brue, Dow Finsterwald, Jack Nicklaus and Littler himself.
Souchak started the afternoon round with birdies on three of the first four holes, and momentarily he held a one-stroke advantage over Sanders, who was playing 40 minutes behind him. When Souchak came to sudden grief, Sanders resumed his leading position, and there was a time midway through the afternoon when it appeared he could coast home to victory while the others gambled and scrambled to overtake him.
Littler, however, was playing brilliant golf in the final round—and he was doing it unnoticed, as this splendid athlete, with his amazing talent for obscurity, so often has during the past years. Moving along about two holes ahead of Sanders, Littler picked up birdies on the 11th and 13th holes while Sanders was going over par on the 9th, 10th and 12th. All of a sudden, Littler had a three-stroke lead over Sanders and two over Goalby.
Few of the nearly 20,000 people scattered across the Birmingham, Mich. course were ready for this turn of events. Jack Murphy, a golf writer for The San Diego Union, counted Littler's gallery on the 3rd hole on the last round. There were seven people. By the 11th it was up to about a hundred. But, paired with Dickinson, Littler still had the kind of gallery that meanders along with the also-rans as he played down the long, straight 14th hole and up the tricky, doglegged 15th. He was hitting every shot with the easy, graceful swing that has characterized his golf ever since he came to wide attention as the Amateur Champion of 1953. Dickinson, who no longer had a chance to win himself, was encouraging Littler with just the right blend of praise and humor to keep him relaxed.
"I'll sell you that shot, Gene," Dickinson said to him after hitting a fine drive off the 16th tee.
When Littler hit an even better one, Dickinson said, "Lovely. Beautiful. Just right."
It wasn't until Littler saw the scoreboard alongside the 16th green that he realized he was ahead of both Sanders and Goalby. He delicately stroked a most treacherous approach putt on the 17th green but, before his second shot on the 18th, you would never have known that he knew. Here Littler broke the rhythm of the superb golf he had been playing. The long spoon shot he intended to play from the fairway to the green went off line to the left and fell into a deep bunker guarding the green. Littler hit weakly out of the sand, leaving a good 30 feet of undulating green between his ball and the hole. At that moment (although Littler didn't know it) Sanders had just cut the margin between them to a single stroke with a birdie 3 on the 16th hole. A lot of people who could see the situation on the scoreboard began to think of Arnold Palmer's disaster on the final green at the Masters only a few months earlier.
When Littler left his approach putt two feet short of the hole, it was almost too much to watch, for seldom has there been a golfer with more friends pulling for him. Unlike so many of his fellow pros, Littler avoids agonizing dramatics on the putting green, but this putt he examined with infinite care. Then he stepped up and punched it into the hole.
"Was it a straight-in putt, Gene?" someone asked him afterwards.