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.