Commentary

Palmer's legacy forged at Cherry Hills

Updated: September 3, 2014, 4:15 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. -- Standing on the first tee at Cherry Hills Country Club, the mountains forming the perfect Colorado background, the mile-high air providing extra confidence, the idea of driving the first green with a mighty tee shot undoubtedly crosses the mind.

[+] EnlargeArnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus
AP PhotoA 30-year-old Arnold Palmer, left, puts his arm around amateur Jack Nicklaus at the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. The win was Palmer's lone U.S. Open title, while the second-place finish for Nicklaus was the first of 19 such runners-up in majors.

Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson gave it a try the other day, their attempts in practice for this week's BMW Championship missing the mark using persimmon woods -- the only option available to Arnold Palmer when he made history here more than five decades ago.

What if Palmer had failed to find the putting surface on that Saturday so long ago? What if his birdie had been a par, his final-round charge in the U.S. Open never ignited?

Would Arnie be ... Arnie?

"Arnold would not have been Arnold without Cherry Hills, coming as it did on him winning the Masters," renowned golf writer Dan Jenkins said recently. "It was really what certified him as whoo, ha, go, Arnie!"

Talk about an important place in golf history.

Not only did Cherry Hills become synonymous with Palmer and what turned out to be his lone U.S. Open victory, it can reasonably be argued that it is where the modern Grand Slam was born.

The Tiger Slam of 2000-01? The career Grand Slam that Rory McIlroy will try to achieve next April when he attempts to win the Masters? That is terminology that might not otherwise have existed were it not for Palmer's victory at the 1960 U.S. Open -- a memory that remains fresh more than 54 years later.

And then there is this: it was first of 19 runner-up finishes in major championships for a guy named Jack Nicklaus, then an amateur, who played the final 36 holes with ... Ben Hogan.

You couldn't make up such a story.

"Of course it was a great thrill," said Palmer, who turns 85 on Sept. 10, from his Pennsylvania office last week. "I knew a lot of people at Cherry Hills because of their association with Palm Springs where I went in the winter. And the fact that the Open was going to be at Cherry Hills was something I looked forward to very much."

So much so that Palmer took a couple of early visits to the course, having never before played it until the weeks preceding the tournament.

The year was turning into a big one for Palmer. He had won five times that season on the PGA Tour, including the Masters, where he birdied the final two holes to edge Ken Venturi.

And yet it is fair to argue that Palmer had yet to become ... well, Palmer -- the swashbuckling, go-for-broke icon. The matinee idol, cigarette dangling from his mouth while he stood on the tee. The first player to earn $1 million in prize money. Endorsement czar. Certified pilot.

Or the words you say when you want ice tea mixed with lemonade.

Palmer had won the Masters in 1958 and again in 1960. He had amassed 18 PGA Tour victories, starting in 1955.

And yet what followed at Cherry Hills is truly where the legend was cemented.

"Any mention of Arnold Palmer is prohibited by law without Cherry Hills attached to it," Jenkins wrote in his book, "His Ownself: A Semi-Memoir."

[+] EnlargeArnold Palmer
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesA sign by the Cherry Hills Country Club first tee commemorates the magical final round by Arnold Palmer, where he rallied from 7 shots back with 18 to play to win the 1960 U.S. Open.

The date was June 18, 1960. Back then, the U.S. Open concluded with 36 holes on Saturday.

Look who was in contention that day. Palmer, 30, at the top of the game; Hogan, 48, well past his prime but contending for what would have been a fifth U.S. Open title (or a sixth as Jenkins and many believed, because of a war era "Open" that was everything but official); and a kid named Nicklaus, 20, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.

"It remains to this moment the most incredible last day of a major I ever covered," said Jenkins -- who has been to more than 200 of them.

Palmer had shot rounds of 72-71-72 and was 7 shots back of Mike Souchak through 54 holes. He was on his way out for the fourth round after a break when he encountered Jenkins, then the golf writer for the Fort Worth Press, and sports writing pal Bob Drum of the Pittsburgh Press.

Both writers were well acquainted with Palmer, especially Drum, who hailed from the same Pennsylvania area and had covered the golfer since he was a junior. Neither felt Palmer had much of a chance. Not only was the 7-stroke deficit daunting, but there were 14 players ahead of him.

"Go on, boy, get out of here," Drum said to Palmer, the needle always ready. "Go make your usual six birdies and shoot 73."

Drum -- who passed away at age 78 in 1996 and became well known in the 1980s for a golf TV feature he did on CBS golf telecasts called "The Drummer's Beat" -- was chiding Palmer's aggressiveness, and Arnie was having none of it. He talked about driving the first green at Cherry Hills and making a birdie or an eagle to kick-start his round -- even though he had played the hole in 2 over for the tournament through three rounds.

"What good will it do you?" Drum said.

Palmer figured if he began his round with a birdie, he might get on a roll and shoot 65. That would give him a total score of 280.

"Doesn't 280 always win the Open?" Palmer said.

"Yeah, when Hogan shoots it," Jenkins quipped.

And out went Palmer, bemused, but irritated.

"Of course I knew Drum and Jenkins very well," Palmer recalled, his voice rising. "I knew most of the guys pretty well. Drum was the one that made the most cutting remarks. And I would say that he did piss me off.

"The fact that he was a friend only made it more interesting for me to be out there playing. And it did motivate me to get started on that last round. And Mike Souchak, who was leading the tournament [through 54 holes] was also a friend of Drum's from Pittsburgh. He got the adrenaline going a little bit."

Palmer did, indeed, drive the green at Cherry Hills' first hole, then a 346-yard par-4 that had water in front and running up the right side. (Palmer found the water during the first round and made a double-bogey.)

He chipped in for a birdie at the second, made birdies at the third and fourth. He then added birdies at the sixth and seventh.

"So I birdied six of the first seven holes and then on the eighth hole they showed up," Palmer said of Drum and Jenkins. "And of course my remark to them was, 'What are you doing here watching someone who has no chance?' That brought a pretty big smile to everyone."

Palmer bogeyed the eighth, followed with a par at the ninth, and shot 5-under-par 30 for the first nine.

This was no dull U.S. Open.

Among those who held the lead at one point or another during the time Palmer made his charge: Palmer, Hogan, Nicklaus, Souchak, Julius Boros, Ted Kroll, Dutch Harrison, Jack Fleck, Jerry Barber and Dow Finsterwald.

Palmer birdied the 11th and parred the rest to shoot 6-under 65 for a total of 280, 4-under par.

Nicklaus had eagled the seventh and birdied the ninth. He had a 10-footer for birdie at the 13th that would have put him 2 ahead, but knocked it two feet past the hole, then missed the par putt. He ended up three-putting three of the last six greens.

Hogan, meanwhile, had hit every green in regulation through his first 34 holes of the day. (Think about that -- a 48-year-old man hitting every green in a U.S. Open). He was tied with Palmer after a birdie at the 14th, and could have taken the outright lead with a birdie at the 16th that failed to drop.

And then at the 17th, a par-5, Hogan was positioned perfectly after two shots, facing a 70-yard pitch to a pin just past a pond. Jenkins remember thinking there is no way Hogan would come up short -- but that is exactly what happened. He hit his pitch fat, the ball hitting an embankment and rolling back into the water. Hogan hit the shot from the water, then failed to make a 15-footer for par -- and then made a triple at the 18th.

Hogan ended up finishing 4 shots back in a tie for ninth.

Afterward, Hogan explained: "Palmer was having a good round. I thought I needed to finish 4-4 to beat him. I thought I hit a good shot at 17... a good shot."

He later added: "Hell, don't feel sorry for me. I played 36 holes today with a kid who could have won this Open by 10 shots if he'd known what he was doing."

That kid, of course, was Nicklaus -- who has many times over the years said it turned into one of the greatest learning experiences of his career. "I was watching Hogan play golf, because I was going to learn from how he played golf," Nicklaus said. "I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing. I learned a ton that day."

Imagine the implications?

"It would have been huge for Hogan," Jenkins said. "He would have counted it as his sixth Open. So would I. [And] no surprise about Jack. We knew he was coming. It was just a matter of when. He would have been a great story, too. First amateur since Johnny Goodman [in 1933] to win the Open.

"It was one of those occasions where the writer couldn't lose. Any of the three would have been a great yarn, as we used to say in journalism."

Palmer, of course, provided plenty of copy. He had become the first player since Hogan in 1953 to win the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year.

And Palmer hoped to duplicate Hogan's feat of adding the Open Championship, as well. Like Hogan, he had never played in the tournament. Unlike Hogan -- who went to Carnoustie and captured the Claret Jug in his only attempt -- Palmer did not prevail in 1960, finishing a shot behind winner Kel Nagle at St. Andrews.

It would be the first time anyone mentioned the idea of winning a modern Grand Slam. Palmer and Drum discussed the scenario on the way to Scotland, and the idea took off.

If Bob Jones could have his U.S. and British Opens and Amateurs as a Grand Slam, why couldn't the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship be a newer version?

The story sold, and the game has never looked back.

Palmer followed his runner-up finish at the Old Course with a tie for seventh at the PGA Championship -- the only major he failed to win.

Cherry Hills has been an infrequent stage for the game's big tournaments, making this week's return for a PGA Tour playoff event special.

It hosted the U.S. Open in 1938, 1960 and 1978, as well as the 1941 and 1985 PGA Championship. The U.S. Amateur was staged there in 1990 and 2012 and so was the 2005 U.S. Women's Open.

But it's hard to beat what happened here in 1960.

"The wildest Open ever," wrote Herbert Warren Wind in Sports Illustrated.

"All I can say," Jenkins noted, "is it was stunning, mind-numbing, thrilling and all such as that for a U.S. Open."

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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