Sports

US Open countdown: Gene Littler rallies in final round to win his only major

61st U.S. Open | June 15-17, 1961

Oakland Hills Country Club South Course, Birmingham, Mich.

Leaderboard

Gene Littler, United States 73 - 68 - 72 - 68 281
Bob Goalby, United States 70 - 72 - 69 - 71 282
Doug Sanders, United States 72 - 67 - 71 - 72 282
Jack Nicklaus, United States (a) 75 - 69 - 70 - 70 284
Mike Souchak, United States 73 - 70 - 68 - 73 284
a-amateur

Two years after watching good friend and San Diego-area childhood rival Billy Casper capture the U.S. Open title at Winged Foot Golf Club, Gene Littler matched the feat by coming from behind in the final round to win his only professional major championship.

Littler’s win was no fluke. His accomplishments as an amateur were well-regarded, starting with a U.S. Amateur victory in 1953. And a year later, he won the hometown San Diego Open as an amateur.

Shortly after that win, he turned professional — and went on to finish second to Ed Furgol at the 1954 U.S. Open at Baltusrol Golf Club.

But Littler, a sweet swinger with a great deal of natural ability, badly slumped for a two-year stretch from 1957-59. It was only on a tip from Paul Runyan to change his grip and the club face position on his backswing that “Gene the Machine” returned to playing high-level golf.

Early in the final round in the 1961 Open, he trailed Doug Sanders by four strokes. But two early birdies by Littler, coupled with a brief meltdown by the tournament leader, quickly tightened the leaderboard.

Littler was bogey-free in his final round until he hit his approach shot in a greenside bunker on the finishing hole. He made bogey to drop a shot — giving Sanders a late opening to tie him.

Needing a birdie one of the two final holes, Sanders barely missed a 17-foot putt at the 17th hole. And at No. 18, his 25-foot chip lipped out of the hole.

Littler recorded 17 top-10 finishes at the three majors in the United States. He also won 29 PGA Tour tournaments in his career.

todd.milles@thenewstribune.com

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