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
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.
June 9, 1996
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
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.
Exactly two years later golf was the last thing on his mind.
Survival was the first.
In March 1972, Littler underwent an annual physical examination
with the family physician, Dr. Roger Isenhour, who came across a
peculiar lump under Littler's left arm. "I don't like the looks
of that," he told Littler. A subsequent biopsy confirmed Dr.
Isenhour's darkest suspicions: Littler was suffering from a
malignant tumor of the lymph gland. Worse yet, it was diagnosed
as a melanoma, a virulent type of cancer known to spread with
"The first thing you think of is, I'm going to die," Littler
recalls. "Then you say, Why me? I never drank or smoked. I
watched what I ate. I know people who didn't take care of
themselves at all, who did everything wrong, and they were
healthy. Just think of it, if I hadn't scheduled the exam when I
did, if I'd waited several months or more, well, by that time, I
might've been dead."
In April '72, Masters time, he underwent extensive surgery. "The
procedure then was to go in and take everything out," he says.
Littler lost much of the muscle group on his left side,
including a large portion of the pectoral. He realized that he
might never be able to play golf again, and he accepted that. He
had enjoyed a fine career, had won perhaps the biggest
championship of them all and had made hundreds of friends. He
still had his family. And now he would have more time to enjoy
his collection of cars, which numbered some half dozen and
included a 1958 Rolls Silver Cloud. Golf had been his
livelihood, his passion, but he could live without it. If he
could simply just live.
His rehabilitation from surgery was, at first, agonizingly slow.
After the operation, his left arm was all but useless. He
regained some movement by exercising with a one-pound barbell.
"It was the cutest little thing, but, you know, I couldn't lift
it off a table," he says. Then he began exercising with a pulley
apparatus in his garage. As the strength gradually returned to
his arm, he tried hitting golf balls. "It was hilarious," he
says. "I had no control at all." Still, with little hope of
playing competitively again, he kept at it.
Wisely, he decided to swing as he always had. "I didn't change a
thing. I didn't compensate for those lost muscles, even though
I'd always thought of golf as a left-sided game. That's not the
case. The left side is merely the leader. The right supplies the
That October, only six months after his surgery, he entered the
Taiheiyo Masters in Japan, a popular tournament stop at the
time, and surprised himself by finishing in the top 10. "Nobody
thought I'd ever perform again," he says, "and I still had some
doubts. But after Japan, I began to think if I played again, I'd
give hope to other cancer patients. I'd been getting letters
from all over, and I'd answered them all, just trying to give
people some hope. Until Japan, I really didn't know if I could
still play competitive golf. Now I thought there was a reason to
at least try."
Nine months later, in July 1973, he shot a remarkable
66-66-68-68 to win the St. Louis Children's Hospital Classic. It
was the most gratifying and emotional win of his career. "I was
ecstatic after winning the Open, of course. But I was absolutely
overcome by winning in St. Louis. I realized I was the only
player who had ever come back from that kind of surgery."
That year he won the Ben Hogan Award as comeback player of the
year and the Bob Jones Award for distinguished accomplishments
in golf. He was 43 and still apprehensive about the possible
recurrence of his cancer--"they never did find the primary
source of that melanoma"--but he seemed to be playing as well as
ever. He may have lost some ability in stroking the ball from
the rough because of the muscle deprivation on his left side,
but the beautiful swing was intact and he was still accurate. "I
guess the best you can say about my golf is when I hit it bad,
it stays on the course," he once said. "I can always go find
In January 1975 he won the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am and in
1977 he nearly won the PGA Championship at Pebble Beach, losing
on the third hole of a sudden-death playoff, the first ever in a
major, to Lanny Wadkins, 20 years his junior. At that, Wadkins
was lucky, sinking a 12-foot downhill putt on the first extra
hole that was hit so hard it most likely would have rolled off
the green if it hadn't slammed into the cup. Wadkins's second
shot on the second hole caromed off a rock and onto the putting
But luck also figures large in the Littler lexicon. He is lucky,
he says, in his choice of wives--"finding the right person to
live your life with is always just plain lucky." He is lucky to
have earned a handsome living playing a game he has loved since
he was a youngster scrambling around San Diego's courses. He's
lucky to have been able to continue playing into his 60's on the
Senior tour, earning more money there than he ever did on the
regular Tour. And, most of all, he's lucky to be alive.
Of course, there has also been the bad luck. In 1984 he fell
from a ladder while working on one of his vintage autos and
broke his already weakened left arm. It was, he insists, "the
worst of all my injuries since it absolutely destroyed my short
game. I couldn't chip at all there for a while." He has also had
three knee operations and surgery on both shoulders for
rotator-cuff injuries. And he suffers from an arthritic back.
"There's good and there's bad," he says philosophically. "It's
all part of the deal."
Littler is munching on a burrito in one of San Diego's better
Mexican restaurants. The sandy hair is flecked with gray, but he
is still a trim 160 pounds and his oval face shows few of the
ravages of time and trouble. "People ask me why I keep playing.
You're 65, they'll say, so what more do you have to prove?" He
laughs. "Well, all I say is that I still want to be as good as I
can at whatever age I am. I guess I'll play until I can no
longer be competitive or at least until my scores are closer to
80 than 70. You know, it's actually hard to play for fun. I need
the challenge. And in my mind I can still play. I could say I
still have the quest." He dusts a speck of crust from his cheek.
"Do you think I'm delusional?"