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GOLF | SENIORS NOTEBOOK

Golfers' Early Walk Not Spoiled

March 16, 1997|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dawn patrol with Gene Littler and friends.

There were few distractions and even fewer spectators. The greens were nicer and they got a brisk morning walk. And there about ends the up side.

"I've learned that if you're driving to the course in the dark and you're finished before lunch, then you're not shooting very good," said Littler, 66.

Littler, Deane Beman and Lou Graham were first off Saturday in the Toshiba Senior Classic's second round. They began at 7:35 a.m. and were done at 11:15, well before lunch time.

And none was shooting very well. Either that or they were being very considerate to the leaders by keeping pretty much off the fairways through their first nine holes.

Littler began the day seven-over and he was the leader in the threesome. Beman and Graham were eight-over. By the end of the day, little had changed. Littler shot a three-over. Beman fared a bit better at one-over, and Graham was eight-over for the day.

Still, the game is what you make of it.

"Actually, the greens are better when you're first," Littler said. "And the course isn't too crowded."

In fact, their "gallery" was one, Steve Hagen. The Mission Viejo resident was celebrating his birthday with a day of golf, following golfers from early morning to late in the afternoon.

"I came out early to get a little exercise," Hagen said. "I'm going to watch some of the leaders a little later."

Hagen had moved on by the ninth hole.

Littler, whose swing earned him the nickname "The Machine," has had to deal with much bigger crowds in his career.

After turning pro in 1954, he rarely was part of the early-morning threesome. Littler was the U.S. Open champion in 1961 and selected to the Ryder Cup team seven times. He lost to Billy Casper in an 18-hole playoff at the 1970 Master's.

Littler also overcame cancer of the lymph system, undergoing surgery in the spring of 1972 and returning to the tour that fall. He had 29 PGA victories, the last being the Houston Open in 1977. He lost in a playoff to Lanny Wadkins at the PGA championship at Pebble Beach that same year.

After moving to the senior tour, he ranked among the top 10 in earnings the first seven years and is among the top 31 on the all-time list. His last victory was in 1989, when he won the Aetna Challenge.

That ability appeared briefly Saturday. Littler had birdies on the 13th and 15th to play an even-par 36 on the back nine.

"It was a good day even if it started a little early," Littler said.

*

Littler didn't go entirely unnoticed by fans, as he signed several autographs after he was finished.

Gene Callender was among the group. He had followed Littler through several holes and was waiting at the end for an autograph.

"I want it for my boss," Callender said. "He lives on Gene Littler Drive in Huntington Beach."

Said Littler: "That's the first I heard of it. I do know there's a street named for me in Albuquerque. My son lived there for four years and discovered it one day while he was driving around."

The Gene Littler Drive in Huntington Beach is located near Meadowlark Golf Course.

*

First out wasn't the first in Saturday. Littler-Beman-Graham may have gotten things started, but it was the group of Casper, Jimmy Powell and Don January who finished first.

The Casper-Powell-January group was allowed to play through after Graham ran into trouble on the 13th.

Graham's tee shot sliced wide of the green and bounced down a hill. After a five-minute search, Graham had to take a stroke-and-distance penalty.

The day ended better. Graham had a birdie on the 18th hole--his only birdie of the tournament thus far.

*

Walter Zembriski, who began the day at even-par, finished strong Saturday. He was one-over for the day through 11 holes, then birdied five of his last seven holes. He birdied three of the final four to finish with a four-under 67, four shots off the lead.

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