Gene Littler, the U.S. Open golf champion, is a soothing sight to watch. So gracefully does he swing a golf club that he makes this contrived and difficult motion appear as natural and effortless as the capers of a child around a maypole. When he warms up alongside his fellow pros on the practice tee before a round of tournament play, his fluid style tends to give the best of them a strained and awkward look by comparison. Only Bobby Jones and Sam Snead among the top modern golfers have ever appeared so entirely at ease while executing a stroke. Because of this wonderful swing, golfing greatness has long been predicted for him; and he is now, at last, living up to those predictions (see cover). Yet he has also developed as a rare athletic enigma, one of the most successful but least known champions in sport.
As a matter of fact, Gene Littler must often feel like the horrible example in a television commercial for a deodorant. Crowds shun him. Last summer, when he was only a few holes away from his victory in the Open championship, Littler and Gardner Dickinson, his playing partner, were being followed by hardly a dozen people. It wasn't until Littler was actually leading the tournament that the gallery began to gather around him.
As far as Littler is concerned, it is fine if the crowd prefers to remain afar and lionize the other players. "I just like to go out and play my game and be left alone," he has said with the disarming frankness that is part of his personality. "I don't like all the folderol that goes with winning."
Considering the hullabaloo surrounding professional golf these days, it is one of the contradictions of the sport that Littler can manage to remain as inconspicuous as he does. Since he turned professional early in 1954, he has won 18 major PGA tournaments (an average of better than two a year), and he has finished second in 17 others. His total winnings have come to $208,502, and only four golfers—Arnold Palmer, Doug Ford, Bill Casper, Jr. and Dow Finsterwald—have won more money in the same period.
This year, as Littler approaches the defense of his Open title in June, he has been having another excellent season. He won the Lucky International in San Francisco, finished second to Palmer at Palm Springs and was fourth at the Masters, where he was only two strokes behind the three-way tie of Palmer, Finsterwald and Gary Player. Throughout the first four months of competition he has remained consistently among the top three money winners, with total earnings of well over $20,000.
But the facelessness which Littler courts makes him the most difficult to comprehend of all the headline golfers of our day. It creates in him a diffidence that affects not only his personality, but his professional playing ability.
Only recently Littler was discussing Arnold Palmer and the willful optimism that makes Palmer assume that the most impossible shot will succeed, especially when it has to. "I'm the other way," Gene said, making an unusual revelation for such a successful athlete. "It never occurs to Arnold that the ball won't go in the hole, but I'm always surprised when it does."
Paul Runyan, that grand and graying teacher and competitor who is the pro at the La Jolla ( Calif.) Country Club, Littler's home course, has this to say about Gene's attitude. "Generally, I think Littler is one of the three greatest golfers in the world today and one of the top six golfers of all time. If he could just get the mental attitude of a Doug Ford, Byron Nelson, Bobby Jones or even a Paul Runyan, nobody would ever beat him. But Gene still has a tendency to feel negative unless he is in absolute top form, and not many golfers have ever had the ability to be in top form every week."
Few are in a better position to judge Littler than Runyan, for in 1958 he helped rescue Gene from one of the most celebrated slumps since Shirley Temple outgrew dolls.
Littler had emerged from the ranks of amateur golf in 1954 with a reputation so awesome that the established pros, if they believed what they read, would have been justified in beating their golf clubs into plowshares. The previous year, while still a 22-year-old seaman in the Navy, he had won the California amateur and open championships and then the U.S. Amateur. A few weeks before turning pro himself, he beat the best of the touring pros to win the San Diego Open. Only once before in modern golf had an amateur ever won a regular PGA tournament. When Gene formally announced his decision to play for money—one of the smallest surprises in the annals of the sport—he was immediately picked as the man most likely to replace Ben Hogan and Snead, whose best days were by this time behind them.