Missing Gene Littler

Gene Littler Old School Gentleman, Competitor with Memorable Swing

Gene Littler was in his heyday when I was just old enough to grab onto the game of golf. Many of my early heroes came from the PGA Tour of that era. At that age, we don’t perceive our favorite players in the same way we do as adults. The ones we idolize wear a halo and fit right in with our other sports heroes, movie stars and legendary historical figures. In the midst of the Flash Gordon style of my 1950s and early 60s. Player, Palmer, Nicklaus and the others might just as well have been carrying light sabers in their bags. And then there was Gene Littler, the quiet man with the beautiful swing, virtually impossible to dislike.

I wasn’t old enough to know the difference between  a great swing and someone scything a field of weeds, but I must have sensed it. I got a tiny artistic thrill watching Littler hit a golf ball that I didn’t really understand.  The validity of my instinct was confirmed when Gene Sarazen suggested that Littler’s swing was even better than Snead’s, and when Mickey Wright said it was likely the best swing she had ever seen,

Gene Littler Gene Littler died at 88 years of age this week,  many decades after a cancer diagnosis. I remember that as well. Where the great players with charismatic personalities provided one outlet for life expression, Littler represented a little corner of serenity that I apparently coveted at the time. Learning that he had cancer endangered all of that, and I was vicariously frightened. We weren’t as good at cancer then as we have since become, and my thoughts toward the universe were all about “Why would you do that to Gene?” At the time, I believed that the universe heard my objections, for Littler came back to win 29 times on tour. Added to that, he won the ‘inspirational’ trophies of his day, the Ben Hogan Award, the Bobby Jones Award for sportsmanship, and induction into the 1990 the World Golf Hall of Fame.

The modest man with the fluid swing won the ’53 U.S. Amateur and the ’54 San Diego Open before turning pro. He won five times in 1959, and in 1961 came back from three shots down to win the U.S. Open, his only major. He might have won two more, but lost a Masters and a PGA in playoffs to Billy Casper and Lanny Wadkins. Littler’s favorite win, however, was the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Open, his first championship since the cancer diagnosis. He was “ecstatic” over winning the U.S. Open, but for the St. Louis, was “absolutely overcome.” He won 3 times in one year three years after taking time off for extensive lymphatic surgery. Decades after that, Littler won eight times on the senior tour.

Gene Littler was living proof that the great ones aren’t always the charismatic or fierce ones. Charisma and ferocity have never talked a ball into a hole, however much we might love the natural theater of such strong personalities. Thoughtfulness is pure gold in such a profession, and  Littler was thoughtful in his preparation. He worked hard to get that game, but once observed that he might have won more tournaments “had I not wanted to go home so often.” Touring professions are similar in this way. There’s only so much of it a family man can take at one time. Littler also remarked that when he won, the furor died down more quickly, and that he actually preferred it that way. His precise words included an admission that “What I say isn’t too interesting…careful not to say the wrong thing…colorless, dull? Yeah, guess you’d say so.” For me, that is all a breath of fresh air on some level.

As the kid of the 50s grew up, I had to surrender to seeing my heroes in a more literal light, and appreciate them in a different way than I originally had. Swords transformed into real drivers, wedges, and putters. That’s the fun part, though, about remembering Gene Littler, The man described by the Boston Globe as “quietly outstanding” still evokes that little corner of serenity in much the same way I felt it then. I am of a mind to believe that the “Littler effect” must have been real, because I have never felt the need to outgrow it.

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