Now that J.B. Holmes has finally finished and the overblown Matt Kuchar/caddie kerfuffle has been put to rest, let’s take a moment to appreciate Gene Littler.
“The Machine” passed away last Friday in San Diego at 88, slipping away quietly while leaving behind an extraordinary record that included 29 PGA Tour victories including the 1961 U.S. Open.
Unless you’ve followed golf since the 1970s, Littler’s name might not mean much to you. We live in a society where if it didn’t happen in the last two weeks, it probably wasn’t important.
All you need to know about Littler is that the great Mickey Wright called him her hero.
Littler’s golf swing was a thing of beauty, as graceful as Fred Astaire and with a rhythm Bruno Mars would envy. Littler played at a time when the game wasn’t built around power and, like Sam Snead, he had a natural grace that couldn’t be taught but was universally admired.
“I loved to watch him practice,” Lanny Wadkins said. “He had such great tempo in his swing and his putting stroke was so good. Plus, he was one of the true gentlemen who ever played.”
Only 18 players have won more PGA Tour events than Littler. He won more than Gary Player or Johnny Miller or Raymond Floyd. Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth have won 25 Tour events combined. Littler also played on seven Ryder Cup teams, the most of anyone at that time.
Littler also overcame a cancer battle that he said probably kept him from winning more often.
“He was a helluva player for a long time,” Wadkins said.
Through all of it, Littler did it quietly, almost gently, because that was his way.
“He was a gentle soul,” Curtis Strange said.
Don January was one of Littler’s closest friends, playing and winning multiple team events with him through the years.
“He wasn’t interested in the spotlight,” January said. “You could light a fire under him and he wouldn’t holler.”
Littler won the 1953 U.S. Amateur and he won the PGA Tour’s 1954 San Diego Open as an amateur. In addition to his U.S. Open triumph at Oakland Hills, he lost the 1970 Masters in a playoff to Billy Casper and the 1977 PGA Championship in a playoff against Wadkins.
January recalled the first time he and Littler were teammates in the Legends of Golf event. They found themselves one stroke behind Bob Goalby and Miller Barber with three holes to play.
“I told Gene we need to finish birdie-birdie-birdie and we’d get ’em,” January said. “He had about a 30-footer on 16 and rolled it in. I made about a 10-footer for birdie on 17 so we were one up on 18.
“Gene had about a 40-footer and I was about 15 feet away and when I looked up, he rolled that thing in like it was nothing. He looked at me said, ‘You told me that’s what we needed to do.’ ”
Over the years, January and his wife traveled with Littler and his wife, Shirley. It was a time when the pros often drove from tournament to tournament and generally stayed in the same places. Families grew up together on the road.
“Gene and Shirley came from just below zero,” January said. “They came such a long way and they were so great. Looking at them just made your heart beat faster.”
Top Photo: Gene Littler during the 1970 Masters, Augusta National, Getty Images
S L O W P L A Y: In a world divided in too many ways, one topic can galvanize us: Slow play.
It’s almost as frustrating as it is enduring.
The complaints continue but nothing seems to change. PGA Tour officials have the power to warn then penalize players but unless your names are Miguel Ángel Carballo, Brian Campbell or Corey Pavin (the last three players hit with slow-play penalties) it doesn’t happen.
It should happen more than it does if only to send a message.
Some clever tournament director or, even better, a title sponsor, should insist on a time clock being instituted at their event. It doesn’t have to be as in your face as the Shot Clock Masters on the European Tour last year but it’s time to be proactive.
Time, perhaps more than money, is golf’s biggest challenge these days. The PGA Tour should lead the campaign to play faster.
MADE IN WISCONSIN: Wednesday’s announcement that Steve Stricker will be the U.S. Ryder Cup captain at Whistling Straits next fall wasn’t exactly a surprise but it was the right decision.
Word had leaked long ago that Stricker was next in line and he’s an ideal choice for a couple of reasons – his obvious ties to Wisconsin and the respect everyone has for him.
Stricker, who pulled the unlikely double of winning the PGA Tour’s comeback player of the year in consecutive seasons, is truly one of the nicest people around but he’s more than that.
There’s a streak of toughness about him that made him the player he’s been and will translate to his team.
With the smoke finally clearing from the U.S. loss in France, Stricker will manage egos and expectations and be inspiring in his own way. He’s the right guy for the job.
TRACKING TIGER: Tiger Woods’ decision to play this week’s WGC-Mexico Championship answered one question but raised another: Where does he play next?
Will Woods play in the Honda Classic next week, an event that’s essentially in his backyard, or will he take the week off then play the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill followed by the Players Championship?
He’s not going to play five in a row, which makes the Honda Classic look iffy at best.
NOT THE FIFTH MAJOR TO PHIL: Phil Mickelson’s recent comment that he doesn’t see the Players Championship as a must-play event any more had to give the PGA Tour a collective case of heartburn. The tour desperately wants the Players to be considered as important as the four majors but Mickelson’s comments don’t help.
Some of it is Phil being Phil, always finding his own angle. The reality is the Players is in a category of its own, a special event at the perfect place with a rambunctious history. The move back to March is the right thing and whether Mickelson plays or not won’t detract from the event.
EITHER/OR: Given the choice, would you take Jordan Spieth or Justin Thomas long term?
You can have your pick and I’ll happily take the other.
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