Great swings last, and if longevity was the only measure, Gene Littler would have to be considered among the giants of the game. As it was, he won 29 PGA TOUR tournaments including a U.S. Open, was a stalwart in the Ryder Cup across two decades and was a dominant force in the early years of the Champions Tour. But unquestionably Littler’s sustained excellence is what made his career so noteworthy.
Only once during the quarter century from 1954 to 1979 did he finish out of the top 60 on the money list, and that was in 1972, when he was sidelined by surgery to remove a cancerous lymph node. Littler bounced back from that to win three tournaments and finish fifth on the money list in 1975 at the age of 45 and two years later he won again at 47.
“Golf is not a game of great shots. It's a game of the most misses. The people who win make the smallest mistakes.”
Imagine how good Littler’s career could have been if he was more passionate about golf. He was often criticized for wanting to spend more time at home in sunny Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., among his vintage car collection than grinding it out on the golf circuit. What allowed Littler to coast was one of the finest natural swings the game has ever known.
Gene Sarazen called it “a perfect swing like Sam Snead’s-only better,” and also talked of Littler’s “remarkable physical equipment. He has a pair of wrists like wagon tongues and hands like hams.”
Littler himself had little explanation for the beauty and simplicity of his swing. “I just put the ball down and hit,” he once said. Economy, softspokeness and dry wit were part of his makeup. He once said, “I drew a big gallery today. I was paired with Palmer.” Former tennis champion Ted Schroeder, father of golfer John Schroeder, summed up his friend thusly: “He gave me a typical Littler conversation. Three yeps, two nopes and two nods.”
Littler was born in San Diego in 1930 and first attracted national notice 23 years later, when he sank an 18-foot birdie putt on the 18th green at the Oklahoma C.C. to win the U.S. Amateur, 1 up, over Dale Morey. Four months later Littler won the San Diego Open as an amateur, and two days after that, he turned pro. The following year he won four times, earning the nickname “Gene the Machine” for his remarkably consistent ballstriking. Often overlooked was his outstanding short game.
Gene Littler finished inside the top 60 on the money list 25 times in 26 seasons.
Littler’s tendency to fiddle with his near-perfect swing led to a pronounced slump (by his lofty standards) in 1957 and 1958, but after changing his grip on the advice of Paul Runyan, he quickly found his old form. In 1961, he won his only professional major, the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills. He closed with a 68 to hold off Bob Goalby and Doug Sanders by one stroke.
He came close in two other majors. The closest he came was the 1970 Masters, when he shot a steady 69-70-70-70 to tie Billy Casper, but was outgunned, 74 to 69, by his boyhood friend and rival in the playoff that followed. In the 1977 PGA Championship at Pebble Beach, Littler led from the first round, but closed with a 76 and was tied by Lanny Wadkins, who won on the third extra hole the first time a major championship was ever decided in sudden death. Littler also played on seven U.S. Ryder Cup teams, compiling a superb 14-5-8 record.
In 1980, Littler became eligible for the Champions Tour and proceeded to win three of his first five tournaments. Littler’s play surprised no one because after 30 years “Gene the Machine” winning golf tournaments had come to be expected.