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.
It took only a short while for Littler to start confirming these predictions. In the U.S. Open at Baltusrol that June, Gene stood on the final green needing a 12-foot putt to tie Ed Furgol for the championship. He missed it, but his second-place finish was still most impressive for one so young. The following year he joined the pro tour on a full-time basis, barnstorming across the country in a trailer with his wife and newborn son. He won four tournaments, including the lucrative ($10,000 first prize) Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas, and finished fifth on the list of money winners.
The year 1956 started off equally well. Before it was half over, Littler had won three more tournaments, one of them a repeat at Las Vegas. But suddenly the magnificent grace of his golf swing disappeared. Between August of that year and February 1959—two and a half bleak years—he won only a single tournament, a third victory at Las Vegas.
Today Littler is understandably weary of rehashing that desperate nadir of his golf career. "It was strictly a mechanical thing," he says. "When I started out as a pro I didn't know much about the mechanics of the game. I had always played with a strong right hand, and eventually this worked itself into a closed club face when I hit the ball. Pretty soon I was hooking everything, and unconsciously I tried to block out that hook. The more I corrected, the worse it got.
"I finally talked it over with Paul Runyan," Littler continued. "Even then I wasn't hurting too much for money, making a little here and a little there, but I was kind of floundering around and not really getting anywhere. I had thought some of changing my grip, and after talking to Paul I decided to do it. So I turned my right hand counterclockwise, more on top of the club so as to open up the club face.
"I started practicing that in November 1958. At first I just hit every shot to the right for a while. About the first part of '59 I started playing good again." The statistics attest to just how well Littler started playing. He won five tournaments, finishing second to Art Wall Jr. on the 1959 list of money winners.
Littler's passion for anonymity has helped to conceal the subtle charm of his personality as well as the brilliance of his competitive golf. But those who know him best—fellows like Bill Casper and Don Whitt, who also live in the San Diego area and played on the same golf team with Gene when they were in the Navy together—find a lively wit behind his bland facade. At last year's Colonial Invitational in Fort Worth, Casper was in the press room on the second floor of the clubhouse one afternoon when Littler was dragged in for a reluctant interview after an exceptionally fine round of 67. "This guy is a riot," Casper told a couple of nearby reporters, and he himself hung around for the laughs. Gene's laconic, often monosyllabic remarks were a bit too dry to bring down the house, but they killed Casper.
One might easily conclude that Littler is a man with some God-given gift for golf who dissipates it with a kind of aimless indifference. Actually, the opposite is true, for Littler is a man with a neat and dedicated mind, as his trim, blonde wife Shirley will point out. "He carefully thinks through every problem," she said the other day, "and once he's made his decision nothing can shake him loose from it. He must be about the most determined man in the world." He is allergic to grass, of all things, and sometimes can't sleep because of this. But, says Shirley, "he refuses to believe allergies are anything but psychological," and he grimly ignores them.
Shirley Littler cast her mind back a few years to when they were settling into their new $80,000 California ranch house in the hills behind La Jolla. "For almost a year after we moved into our new home," she said, "I had been fooling around with a mosaic wall piece. I had all the pieces and the frame and the picture worked out, but I couldn't seem to get time to start fitting the pieces together.
"Gene finally got tired of seeing it unfinished, so he went to work on it, and we did it together. He loses himself in projects like that. He worked from 8 in the morning to 10 at night every day for a month until it was finished."
Littler has applied that same purposeful concentration to golf since his mother and father first put a club into his hands at the age of 10. That was in wartime San Diego, a city that was then a harsh blend of defense industry and Navy bustle. Gene's father, Fred Littler, a stocky, red-haired accountant who had emigrated from England in his youth, was a man of modest means who worked, as he still does, for one of the large construction companies in the area. What little luxury there was in the San Diego community in those days was centered around suburban La Jolla, and Gene's parents played golf at the La Jolla Country Club.
The youngest of three brothers, Gene was a husky boy for his age and a good athlete. He participated in many sports, but none with the zeal that he gave to golf. Once he got his first set of clubs he practiced by the hour, day after day, and he was shooting in the 60s by the time he was in high school. The easy, relaxed swing that is such a distinguishing mark of Littler's game today came naturally to him, and he can't remember ever taking a formal lesson as a youngster.
Now, at the age of 32, Gene is only medium-sized—5 feet 9 and a few pounds on either side of 170—but he reached these measurements in his middle teens. He has arms and hands like a stevedore, largely due to the weight lifting and gymnastics that he and his buddies practiced on the San Diego beaches. At one point in those muscle-conscious high school days Gene was both a shot-putter on the track team and a violin player in the school orchestra.
But golf was the epicenter of Littler's life, and by the time he was 17 he was good enough to win many local tournaments and reach the finals of the National Jaycee championship in Peoria, Ill., one of the biggest junior events in the country. The following year he won it. Littler more or less drifted from high school into San Diego State College, for outside of golf he had no strong feelings about what he wanted to do in life. After two years at San Diego State he enlisted in the Navy, which appreciates athletes. It stationed him first in his home town and then at the Navy air base in Coronado, just across the bay. Gene played golf earnestly throughout his time in the service, and his national amateur victory came while he was still in uniform.
Gene married Shirley Warren, who had been his classmate at San Diego State, 10 days before he entered the Navy, and their son Curt was born shortly before Gene got his discharge in early 1954. That was the year he started off by winning the San Diego Open as an amateur. The minute his discharge papers were in hand, Gene, Shirley and little Curt hurried off to Palm Springs, where Gene signed a contract to represent the Thunderbird Golf Club on the professional tour. Among other emoluments, the club traded in Gene's old jalopy for a new Mercury and the 27-foot trailer in which the family lived when they first set out on the tournament trail.
"I'll never forget when we reached Cincinnati that summer," Littler reminisces. "I'd finished my six months as an apprentice, so I was eligible to win money. I picked up a check for $700 there, and I thought I'd never seen so much money."
Shirley Littler is as outgoing as Gene is withdrawn, but both in their separate ways are among the most popular members of the troupe of golfing families that regularly follow the tournament trail. (At the start of the 1962 season, Gene's fellow pros voted him the one they would most like to play with in a tournament.) The combination of their different temperaments works so well that Shirley is able to say, "I think I'm a woman with an ideal husband. Gene has all of the qualities that a man should have to make a good husband and none of the bad ones. When he's at home, he is the most even-tempered and easygoing guy in the world."
Littler reciprocates his wife's sentiments entirely. "Shirley has been a great inspiration to me," he once said, "and I'd rather be home with her and the children [in addition to son Curt, the Littlers have a daughter, Suzanne, 4] than anywhere. To me, being out on the tour is not the greatest thing in the world, and I probably knock off too much for my own good."
As for his temper, Littler takes issue with his wife. "It's there, all right," he says, "but I've learned to control it. When I was a kid I used to throw things around, and then I found out that it doesn't do you any good. I still get sore, though, when I make a bad shot or do something stupid. If you don't get a little upset out there, you're not trying hard enough. And if you're out there trying as hard as you can and things aren't going right, you're not going to be happy."
Like everything else about himself, Littler manages to keep these very emotions that make him a stern competitor concealed from the public. It may not make for good box office to be known as Old Stone Face, but the man with the smooth swing and smooth disposition plays serenely on, having found his own method for being one of the biggest men in golf.