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Remembering U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur Champion Gene Littler

By David Shefter, USGA

| Feb 16, 2019 | Liberty Corner, N.J.
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Gene Littler, one of 11 players to have captured both the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur, died on Feb. 16 at the age of 88. Nicknamed “Gene the Machine” for his smooth and rhythmic swing, Littler registered 29 PGA Tour victories and collected eight more titles on the PGA Tour Champions in his Hall-of-Fame career.

Littler once famously said, “Golf is not a game of great shots. It’s a game of the best misses. The people who win make the smallest mistakes.”

While the 1961 U.S. Open triumph at Oakland Hills Country Club in Birmingham, Mich., was his only major title, Littler compiled 20 top-10 finishes in the three U.S.–based majors; eight at the Masters, seven at the PGA Championship and five at the U.S. Open, including a runner-up showing in 1954 to Ed Furgol at Baltusrol Golf Club shortly after he turned professional.

He also lost two playoffs in major championships: to Billy Casper in the 1970 Masters and to Lanny Wadkins in the 1977 PGA Championship at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links.

In 1973, Littler received the USGA’s highest honor, the Bob Jones Award, in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf. That same year, the Golf Writers Association of America awarded him the Ben Hogan Award for a courageous comeback from injury or illness after he returned to the PGA Tour following treatment for malignant melanoma under his left arm.

Born in San Diego in 1930, Littler’s first passion was baseball. But he also enjoyed hanging around Mission Beach and he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988 that, “I was lazy and not very ambitious. I could have been a beach bum real easy.”

His father introduced him to golf as a teenager and Littler blossomed into one of the country’s best players.

Photo Tribute to Two-Time USGA Champion, Hall of Famer Gene Littler

San Diego sportswriter Jack Murphy gave Littler the nickname “Gene the Machine” for his textbook, albeit self-made, swing.

A year after advancing to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur, Littler won the National Amateur in 1953, defeating Dale Morey, 1 up, in the 36-hole championship match at Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club.  That summer, Littler also claimed the prestigious California State Amateur at Pebble Beach. He also was a member of the victorious 1953 USA Walker Cup Team that included fellow future U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi and future USGA president William C. Campbell.

In early 1954, Littler won the PGA Tour’s San Diego Open as an amateur, a rare achievement in the post-World War II era. He also teamed with professional Art Wall to win the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach.

“I think they had it reversed,” Wall told the Los Angeles Times. “I think I was the amateur and he was the pro. He played that well. All week.”

As a footnote, Littler won the same tournament 21 years later, making him the only golfer to win the event as a professional after winning the pro-am portion.

Littler graduated from San Diego State and served in the U.S. Navy before turning professional in the spring of 1954 at the age of 23.

That June, Littler nearly claimed the U.S. Open in his first start, with Furgol holding on for a one-stroke victory. Littler’s bogey on the 216-yard, par-3 16th hole proved to be the difference.

Littler went into a funk in the late 1950s, but after getting advice from then-La Jolla Country Club professional Paul Runyan, he recovered to enjoy his best season on the PGA Tour with five victories, placing second on the money list.

Two years later, Littler won the U.S. Open by a stroke over Bob Goalby and Doug Sanders with a final-round 68. Only Littler, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Jerry Pate and Tiger Woods have won the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open in the post-World War II era. The others on that prestigious list include Francis Ouimet, Jerome Travers, Chick Evans, John Goodman, Lawson Little and Bob Jones.

From 1954 to 1979, only once did Littler fail to finish out of the top 60 on the PGA Tour money list, and he recovered from the cancer diagnosis in 1972 to win five more times on the PGA Tour.

Littler was a member of seven USA Ryder Cup Teams, helping those teams to six victories and a draw. Littler went 14-5-8 in those seven Ryder Cups, including 5-0-4 in four-ball play.

Still, Littler might have won even more if he wasn’t such a devout family man. He would never play more than three events in a row without coming home to see wife Shirley, whom he met as a student at San Diego State, his son, Curt, and his daughter, Suzanne.

Said Shirley Littler in the Los Angeles Times: “That’s all that ever mattered to him. We were gifted by his presence. One time he told me, ‘Forget the house. Forget everything. The children won’t be here forever.’”

Littler is survived by Shirley, his wife of 68 years, and his two children.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at