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.
June 25, 1961
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.
"It was straight in," he replied, and then emphasized his nervousness with his kind of dry, self-deprecatory wit that is so becoming by adding, "At least, I think it was. I couldn't see the hole."
The excitement was not over, however. A birdie on either of the last two holes would give Sanders a tie, and he made a very gutty try. His 14-foot putt for a two on the 17th ringed the cup but stayed out. On the 18th he drove poorly into the rough on the right, but his lie was good because the big galleries had trampled down the long grass. Using a two-iron, he faded a glorious shot around several small evergreens and to within eight feet of the green, leaving himself a 30-foot chip to the hole for the tie. He pulled his nine-iron from the bag and made another wonderful shot (below left), but just as the ball seemed to be going into the hole it curved left and missed by no more than two inches.
Littler was sitting in the nearby press tent at this moment, and when Sanders' brave try failed, he smiled one of his small quick smiles that can warm an entire neighborhood. Seven years ago he missed an eight-foot putt on the final green at Baltusrol that would have tied him with Ed Furgol for the Open title in his first year as a pro. The road since then has had a lot of bumps in it.
When the new Open champion first turned pro in 1954, many people thought he might soon take a place alongside such superlative tournament golfers as Byron Nelson, Ben Hoganand Sam Snead. The way he hit the golf ball was almost flawless. In 1955, his second year on the tour, Littler won the Los Angeles, Labatt and Phoenix opens and the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas. He seemed on the verge of instant greatness, but in 1956 after winning the Tournament of Champions for the second time something began to happen to his swing. "Littler has developed a hitch in his swing," people said.
Throughout a long period of adjustment Littler continued to earn good money on the tour, but for two years after his third straight Tournament of Champions in the spring of 1957 he failed to win a single tournament. By then people were saying, "Littler has lost his desire."
The dry spell ended when Littler won the Phoenix Open early in 1959, and he went on from there to four more victories on the tour that year and two the next. Throughout 1959 and 1960 he finished among the top 10 in 30 of the 60 tournaments he played and won more than $65,000 in prize money, but the public acted as if he somehow wasn't there. The pros knew of his presence, however. Among their ranks no golfer is more popular.
"Litt is the funniest man there is," Bill Casper told a reporter in Fort Worth last month when Littler was brought into the press room for an interview after taking the lead in the Colonial National. The fact was not immediately apparent as Littler sat on a couch answering questions matter-of-factly in his squeaky Mr. Peepers voice, but every now and then the trace of a grin would hurry across his face as he appended some crisp comment to an answer.
"Did the rough bother you, Gene?" someone would ask.
"No, I don't think so," he replied. And then, wryly, "I can't hit the ball that far."
Last Saturday in the press tent at Oakland Hills it was the same sort of thing.
"Did you ever think of giving up the tour, Gene?"
"I felt like it." Pause. "But my wife wouldn't let me."
"What was the hardest hole on the course, Gene?"
Faint smile. "The last."
"Gene, did you ever think you might lose the tournament?"
The smallest of grins. "I wasn't ever in a position to lose it. Except maybe on the last hole, I guess."
"What did you think the winning score would be?" they asked the man who had just posted a one-over-par 281.
"Two eighty-five," he answered and then really smiled for a split second. "But I'm glad I didn't shoot it."
Cracks like that are enough to make Gene's friends double up with pleasure and mirth. He may not seem quite that funny to most people, but his wit adds a delightful extra dimension to an otherwise quiet personality. On the surface he appears simply to be a very pleasant, straightforward, exceptionally shy man—and somewhat on the boyish side for his 30 years, but that is due in large part to his fair-skinned, youthful face, his puckish manner and his reddish-blond hair, which was newly crew-cut for the Open.
So much excellent golf was played throughout the three days at Oakland Hills that the monstrous reputation acquired by the course during the 1951 Open can now be laid to rest. The competitive course record of 67 set by Ben Hogan during his final round of the previous tournament was equaled once each by Sanders, Cupit, Rosburg. Monti and a relatively unknown pro from Chicago named Bob Harris, in addition, there were 32 rounds of par 70 or better by 26 different players, and Hogan himself turned in a very fine score of 289 while finishing 14th, two strokes more than he shot in 1951 although he was playing on legs and with nerves that are now 48 years old. The fact is that Oakland Hills, with a few minor alterations—ever-so-slightly wider fairways in spots and a half dozen or so fewer bunkers—is no longer a monster, though still a superb test of championship golf.
The course as it played last week demanded the most precise kind of putting. Arnold Palmer, although he finished the final day with two fine rounds in par to tie with Hogan, wasted too many shots on the large and wavy greens during the first two days, and so did Gary Player, who also played his last two rounds in even par and finished with 287 and a tie for ninth.
Perhaps Palmer's main trouble was that he couldn't get up for the tournament, as he told a friend on the clubhouse terrace one afternoon. There was, it is true, a certain quiet, earnest dedication about the tournament that deprived it of the glamour that attends the Masters. Perhaps it missed the presence of such as Art Wall and Jack Burke and Ken Venturi and a sprinkling of other celebrities who failed to qualify. Yet, it was the championship, and few golfers are in a mood to gambol when all that prestige and winner's money is there for the taking.