HBO’s new documentary about the 1960 U.S. Open, “Back Nine at Cherry Hills” (Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern), makes for a great opening round of your golf-watching schedule next week.
In that storied U.S. Open, three generations of the game’s heroes (Arnold Palmer in his professional prime, a 47-year-old Ben Hogan, and a long-hitting amateur named Jack Nicklaus) were all in contention to win. Of course Palmer ultimately prevailed with an “Arnie Charge,” coming from 7 strokes back to win. Hogan never seriously contented in a major again after dunking his approach on 17 in the final round. Nicklaus finished second, though his playing partner, Hogan, who was no fan of Palmer, said afterward: “Today, I played with the young man who should have won the U.S. Open.”
If you’re familiar with HBO documentaries, “Back Nine at Cherry Hills” meets the network’s usual high standards with insightful commentary from the likes of Dan Jenkins and Hogan biographer Curt Sampson, as well as interviews with Palmer and a surprisingly funny Nicklaus. (He claims that as an Ohio State student he’d try to “drink all the beer in Columbus, but they kept making more.”) The producers tracked down hard-to-find archival footage, including an amazing interview with a much older Hogan where the famously taciturn legend appears close to tears.
The only drawback of the documentary is the lack of footage from the actual tournament. Most of the documentary focuses on the three men’s vastly different backgrounds. We see only a handful of shots from the final round, and that whets our appetite for more.
The timing of this documentary is perfect because Torrey Pines could be the stage for one of the most compelling U.S. Opens since 1960. The primary story is Tiger Woods returning from knee surgery to compete in the most grueling major. His obsession with breaking Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors is well-known, but now we’re seeing how deep this obsession runs. The guy scheduled knee surgery between the Masters and the U.S. Open the way an accountant might get an unpleasant vacation with the in-laws out of the way before tax season.
It’s foolish to comment on Woods’s surgery and his recovery because only he and those closest to him know the extent of the injury and the state of his knee. But having his first competitive round after surgery be Thursday at the U.S. Open appears over the top, even for him. The simple fact is that there are only four majors each year, and if he’s going to get to 19 he cannot afford to miss many opportunities. Woods has never forgotten he’s mortal, although we sometimes do.
Then there’s Phil Mickelson. He’s clearly tired of hearing people ask him about his U.S. Open collapse at Winged Foot in 2006. But he hasn’t won a major since. If Mickelson is in contention on Sunday — and with the way he’s playing that’s a good bet — Winged Foot will be on everybody’s mind, especially his.
And now the USGA has announced that Woods and Mickelson will be in the same group on Thursday and Friday. What more could a fan want?
Finally, what about Sergio Garcia? He’s coming off a big win at the Players, but Garcia vs. his putter is one of the game’s great feuds. His final round at the Players aside, can Garcia putt well enough to win a U.S. Open?
So watch HBO’s “Back Nine at Cherry Hills.” And then grab a cold one, settle in on the couch and turn up Johnny Miller because you might see another stirring drama.
*Full disclosure: HBO and Golf.com are both owned by TimeWarner, but all I got for writing this was a chicken sandwich and a Snapple iced tea. Not a bad deal.