Not since Sam Snead came out of the mountains and joined the tour in the winter of 1937 has any young professional so captivated the interest and imagination of the American sports public as Gene Littler, the soft-spoken, sensible, self-possessed young man from La Jolla, Calif., who so far this season has taken the Los Angeles and Phoenix Opens and generally dominated the first month and a half of the 1955 winter circuit. When Snead broke through to win the Oakland Open shortly after leaving West Virginia, he was such a rank unknown that the newspapers and wire services spelled the unfamiliar name Sneed. And, of course, there was Sam's unforgettable comment when he was shown the photograph of himself accompanying the New York Times's account of his victory: "How'd they ever git mah picture? I ain't never been to New York."
AN UNOSTENTATIOUS PREDICTION
Littler's superb talents, on the other hand, have been clearly perceived by people close to golf for quite some time now, and though there are sports pundits who week after week make like they have "discovered" him, it was at least two years ago that Johnny Dawson of the Thunderbird Club in Palm Springs unostentatiously predicted that Littler had the game and the temperament to succeed Ben Hogan as the country's greatest golfer.
At the time Dawson made this prognosis, Littler—who still looks like a Wheaties ad subject who grew up and whose appeal is certainly enhanced by his boy-next-door appearance—was 22, serving in the Navy, and although the possessor of an impressive record in California competition, a mystery man to most golf fans east of Yuma. A lot of us got our first look at the young amateur late in the summer of 1953 when he was a member of the American Walker Cup team which met and defeated a good British side at Kittansett near Cape Cod. What we saw was the soundest natural golf swing since the days of the young Snead. (To digress briefly, Snead is the only golfer who had any influence whatsoever on the development of Littler's swing. When Sam was stationed at San Diego during the war, Littler had the opportunity to watch and study his method.) During the Walker Cup play, it took even the veteran golf observers four or five holes to appreciate Littler's self-schooled technique. In those days Gene took the club back with a very, very slow, easy, relaxed rhythm, then paused a lazy second at the top before droning slowly down into the ball, delaying his accelerated hitting action until the very last moment when the club head was only two feet or so from the ball. There were quite a few of us, I remember, who, on first watching Gene, got the idea that he hadn't had time to hit out some practice balls and was still warming up. He was all warmed up, to be sure, and during the full course of his rounds never changed the unhurrying tempo of his shot-making or, for that matter, his benign attitude toward the whole pressureful business of competitive golf. He won both his singles and foursome matches at Kittansett, and when he went on to win the National Amateur a fortnight later everyone who had watched him was gratified (since the Amateur is a rough championship) but no one was really surprised.
Today, some 18 months later, behind him a successful first year as a pro in which he won over $13,000 in prize money and finished a stroke behind the winner in the National Open, Gene has changed very little either as a person or as a golfer. The speed of his swing has quickened perceptibly, due to the week-in, week-out demands of the circuit, but it is still (along with Snead's) one of the two slowest and soundest in golf. He is a little longer off the tees, say eight or 10 yards. He walks a little faster between shots, at what might be described as a brisk saunter. He still lines up his shots without fuss and then, as he phrases it, "I just take the club back and let it go."
"CONCENTRATION AND ATTITUDE"
One morning last week, before going out for his round in the Pro-Amateur, which preceded the start of the Tucson Open, Gene arrived at the El Rio Club after finishing his morning cup of tea in the trailer in which he lives on the road with his wife Shirley and their year-old son Curt; and, since he was asked, he talked about his golf and the circuit. "I didn't play really well in some of the tournaments I've won," he was explaining. "On the tour, playing golf continuously, you get a little bit tired physically after a while but that doesn't bother you. What really gets worn down is your concentration. You've got to keep alert all the time. That's one of the two big things I've learned on the tour, and the second one also has to do with your attitude. That's learning to minimize your mistakes, not to get sore at yourself. The experience all of us are trying to gain from the tour is how to assemble a fairly good round even when you're not hitting the ball particularly well that day. That takes concentration—and attitude."
One technical department of his game which, by Littler's own assessment, can stand considerable improvement is the pitch to the pin from 120 yards out. "On the short circuit courses, it is the birdie shot and you can't score without it."
When his round was over, Gene, as is his habit, headed back to his trailer, changed into his old clothes and lounged around with his son before dinner. It is Gene's opinion that living in a trailer is the next best thing to living at home—"Everybody's proportions are different," the mature young man was saying the other night, "but, for myself, I find I can play better if there are some other things in my life to think about besides golf, golf, golf."
AFTER MATCH, Littler greets his wife Shirley and son Curt in their trailer home.