Destiny’s New Favorite: Palmer beats Nicklaus and Hogan at Cherry Hills

November 8, 2011

This article first appeared in the June 27, 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated.

For the first three rounds of the National Open last week at Cherry Hills in Denver, Arnold Palmer’s name was scarcely mentioned. In an ordinary tournament this would have been surprising, as Palmer—the golfer of the year and the pretournament favorite—had not played badly at all. He had started with a 72, one-over-par, added a 71 and another 72, but the 1960 Open was no ordinary championship. From the beginning the scoring pace had been so hot that Palmer had never been up among the leaders. When he began his final round at about 1:45 p.m. on Saturday afternoon under a hot mountain sun, he trailed Mike Souchak, the front-runner, by seven full shots and seemed hopelessly out of the running. At 3:15 p.m., after the most explosive stretch of subpar golf any golfer has ever produced in the championship, Arnold Palmer was deep in contention and his name was heard everywhere on the course.

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Because of its historic dimensions, Palmer’s start on his fourth round is worth describing hole by hole. He birdied the first, a short par-4, 346 yards long, driving the green and getting down in two putts from 20 feet. He birdied the 2nd, a 410-yard par-4, holing a little run-up of 35 feet from off the edge of the green. On the 3rd, another abbreviated par-4 which, in the thin air a mile above sea level, played even shorter than its yardage, he picked up his third birdie in a row by wedging his chip a foot from the cup. On the 4th, 426 yards, he stuck his wedge approach about 18 feet from the cup and got the putt for still another birdie. After driving into the rough, he had to be satisfied with par on the long 5th. But on the 6th, a par-3, 174 yards long to an upward sloping green, he was off again. He hit the center of the green with a seven-iron and rolled in a curving 25-foot sidehiller. On the 7th, another short par-4, he played a superb wedge approach to six feet, and when he ran that putt in he had made his sixth birdie in seven holes.

Palmer stopped his own rush on the 8th when he missed the three-footer he had for his par, but with this incredible burst he had succeeded in turning the tournament almost inside out. It was now his for the winning and win it he ultimately did. A conservatively played in-nine of 35—only one birdie but all the rest solid pars—gave him a 65, the lowest final round ever shot by the winner of the Open. His four-round total was 280, two shots lower than that posted by the runner-up, Jack Nicklaus, the 20-year-old National Amateur champion who had played a tremendous tournament from the beginning to the end.

A mild case of murder
At the risk of confusing the issue to some extent, it should be made explicit that it was not until very late in the afternoon that Palmer’s victory was assured or even apparent. This was, to put it mildly, the wildest Open ever. Only one previous championship can be compared to it, the 1925 Open, in which eight players came to the 72nd tee with a mathematical chance of winning. But that tournament became hectic only at the very end. This 1960 Open was a hurly-burly all afternoon long. For four unbroken hours there were so many contenders performing such fantastic things that it was impossible to keep track for very long of who was leading and who was falling back and who was coming on.

At 2:45 p.m., for example, Mike Souchak was still out in front, five-under-par for the tournament; Julius Boros, Dow Finsterwald and Jack Nicklaus were four-under; Ben Hogan was three-under; Jack Fleck, Jerry Barber and Palmer were two-under. This accounting did not take into consideration Dutch Harrison, who was out very early, or Bill Casper, Don Cherry and Ted Kroll, who had barely teed off on their final round. Kroll was to roar off with five birdies (and one bogey) on the first seven holes, but this caused hardly a stir after Palmer’s feat and a similar sprint by Jack Fleck, who birdied five holes (and bogeyed one) out of the first six.

As the afternoon and the pressure wore on, the scoring quieted down, but not the whirligig of shifting positions among a dozen-odd contenders. A few minutes before 4 o’clock, for instance, three players each were five-under-par for the distance traveled. Shortly after 4, Souchak, after a bogey on the 9th, was out of the lead for the first time. A few minutes later, Jack Nicklaus alone was five-under, and he was out in front by himself. At 4:15 p.m., after Nicklaus had taken three putts from 10 feet on the 13th (or 67th), four players were tied four-under-par—Nicklaus; Boros, playing one hole behind him; Palmer, two holes behind; and Fleck, four holes behind. Half an hour later three men shared the lead, Hogan (paired with Nicklaus), Palmer and Fleck, each of them four-under. And so it went until in the closing holes only Palmer was able to hold on to what he had wrested from par. If all this seems hopelessly confusing, then it is an accurate representation of the most unbelievable jam-up the Open has ever seen.

Quite apart from the flamboyant golf it provided, the 60th Open was a notably enjoyable occasion. Cherry Hills had the air of a friendly country fair, an altogether different atmosphere from the chill metropolitan remoteness which prevailed last June at Winged Foot. A newborn community of large green tents almost overwhelmed the rambling neo-Tudor clubhouse. Marshals in red slacks and women scorers in red skirts and red-ribboned gondolier hats moved endlessly among the cottonwoods and the Chinese elms. Around the perimeter of the course kids straight out of Norman Rockwell had set up lemonade stands and were marketing their drinks for a nickel or a dime a glass. In the distance rose the eastern slopes of the Rockies and, not far beyond, a higher ridge covered with snow that looked like an old calendar or a new beer ad—perhaps more like the latter in the minds of the galleries parched by the unrelenting sun.

Best-run Open
If there was something of an old-time picnic flavor to this Open, there was also order. Cherry Hills, no question about it, was far better prepared to run the championship than any club had ever been before. Nothing was overlooked, everything seemed to move without effort. It is significant that the general chairman, Mr. H. R. Berglund, took a leave of absence from his business two years ago and spent the intervening months working solely on the Open.

Because of these circumstances, it would be agreeable to report that the course itself presented an unusually good championship test. This, I am afraid, was not the case. Cherry Hills is simply too short a layout to examine the skills of our present-day professional and amateur stars. Time, moreover, has outmoded some of the strategic features of its topography. It does have four excellent short holes, and the last five holes, designed to be punishing, add up to a rough finishing stretch, but no less than seven of its par-4s play as a drive and a short pitch for the likes of Palmer and his colleagues.

At the same time, Cherry Hills did possess a certain degree of difficulty, for the greens were small, well guarded with traps and water hazards and, above all, hard to hold unless the approach shot was cleanly struck with plenty of spin. Early in the week the officials of the U.S. Golf Association were worried that the combination of the direct sun and the afternoon winds would bake out the greens to the point that they would become almost unplayable. But with judicious watering at night and plain good luck this extreme condition never came to pass. As it played, Cherry Hills did not require the full vocabulary of shotmaking, but it took accuracy and touch and unflagging concentration. Then it could be scored on.

At the end of the first two rounds, as was not entirely unexpected, several Open marks had been broken. First, the halfway cut-off point (to determine the low-50 scorers, and ties, who would be eligible for Saturday’s double round) was 147, a shot below the old record set in 1948 at Riviera. Second, Mike Souchak, putting together an opening 68 on which he used only 26 putts and a 67 replete with some truly brilliant patches, eclipsed the old record for the first 36 holes with his total of 135. On the second day the spotlight was all on Souchak, but on the opening day he was forced to share the stage with Tommy Bolt, a man who is hard to ignore. Old Tom, under the weather to begin with and feeling little better after taking a triple bogey on a short hole, hit his first drive off the 18th into the wide lake that separates the tee from the distant fairway. He hit his second into the water. Then, after reaching the fairway on his third attempt, he threw his driver after the lost balls. Considering the size, beauty and beckoning nature of the water hazard, there was something classic about Bolt’s performance, like Hillary scaling Everest or Stanley finding Livingstone. Bolt finished his round and then withdrew.

Uphill downfall
In a much more serious way, the 18th, a 468-yard par-4 climbing to a high plateaued green, the most rugged hole on the course, was the start of Souchak’s downfall. Beginning to tire from the heat, he double-bogeyed it at the conclusion of his third round after pushing his first tee shot out of bounds. This cut his lead to two shots, and that margin disappeared very quickly once Palmer and the other oncoming challengers started taking par apart in the wild fastnesses of the afternoon.

In the final analysis Palmer, long respected for his astonishing physical and competitive endurance, simply outlasted his rivals. Nicklaus three-putted the 67th and 68th. Jack Fleck, after a great showing, also had trouble on the greens down the stretch. Julius Boros, once again a force in the Open, found sand traps on the 68th and 72nd and missed a three-footer on the 71st. Souchak, still fighting hard to make up ground, couldn’t buy a birdie putt. And so it went, with Ben Hogan suffering the cruelest fate. After hitting 34 consecutive greens in par or better, he was four-under and tied for the lead with Palmer as he played the 548-yard 71st. He elected to gamble for a birdie on his third shot, a little 55-yard pitch over a creek to the island green where the pin was at the front. He lobbed a soft pitch that was just too short, two feet too short. The ball landed at the edge of the water on the far bank, and his stirring bid for his fifth Open title was over. Palmer parred the last two holes and was in.

What can you say about Arnold Palmer? Nothing seems beyond his doing. First that birdie-birdie finish at Augusta. Now this awesome finish in which he came on to win from seven strokes back, something no other golfer has ever accomplished in the Open. He will undoubtedly perform other prodigious deeds in the years ahead. He has an everimproving all-round game and he can hole the long ones. He has unshakable faith in himself and is wonderfully ambitious. Behind him lie the Masters and Open now and before him the Centenary British Open. He will go to St. Andrews with a very good chance to continue his sweep, for here is not only a marvelous golfer but, if you will forgive a Victorian phrase, he seems to be destiny’s favorite.