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, California, 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, a soft-spoken demeanor 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 City Golf & Country Club 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.