Sweet Swinging Gene Littler Was My Inspiration
Many of my friends often compliment me on my rhythmic golf swing. When I won the 2004 USGTF Senior championship at the United States Golf Teachers Cup, Mark Harman said to our fellow members, “He swings so easy and the ball goes
so far,” as he presented me the trophy.
My swing is no accident. In 1961, two years into my golf career at age 11, I was watching the U.S. Open. Gene Littler, the eventual winner, caught my eye. I was mesmerized by his swing. It is certainly no coincidence he was called “Gene the Machine.” In those days, a lot of young golfers patterned their swings after their favorite players. Gardner Dickinson idolized and copied Ben Hogan. Gene Littler was my man. No matter the situation, Littler’s swing was the same – simple, smooth, and balanced. From then on, I would visualize his motion with each ball I hit.
You don’t hear much about fellows like Littler these days, and rarely do you hear about the great players of that era or before. Sad really. Our history is fading more and more with time. Too bad, because Gene’s story is quite amazing. Born in San Diego, he racked up several titles as a young man. He stayed close to home in his early years, attending San Diego State University. His first big win was at the 1953 U.S. Amateur. The following year, still an amateur, he won the San Diego Open, and shortly after he decided to give the pro tour a go.
In his first two years, he won six times. He would go on to win 36 tournaments, including eight titles on the Senior Tour. His record might have been even better except that, in 1972, he was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph glands. After surgery, most thought his playing days were over, but not Gene. He was back on tour the next year and managed to add four more wins before leaving the big tour in 1979. Many pundits are critical of the fact he has only one major win, but he did finish tied for first at the Masters and PGA, only to lose in playoffs. He was a model of consistency over his career, however, and his record earned him entry into the golf Hall of Fame.
When I was in college at Miami in 1968, I had a chance to meet Gene during play at the Miami Open at Miami Country Club. He was walking from tee to green, and I nervously approached him and told him about how I loved his swing and tried to emulate it. He said “Thank you, that’s quite a compliment,” and shook my hand. I don’t remember how he finished that day, but I’ll always remember that instant. Gene Littler changed my life in a brief moment one summer of my youth. Who knows whether I would have stuck with golf or had the success I have enjoyed were I to miss that moment. The swing I copied made the game much more enjoyable.
That was 51 year ago. Over those years, the game has rewarded me in so many ways, from world travel to hundreds of friends. There have been highs and lows, exhilaration and disappointment. But, mostly a lot of joy. To Mister Littler, I can only say thank you.
Mike Stevens is the Southeast Director of the USGTF and a golf teaching pro at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. He is the 2012, 2010, and 2005 National Hickory Champion and the 2004 US Golf Teachers Senior Champion. He also owns and operates the Mike Stevens On Target Golf School in Tampa.