Colorado, Cherry Hills helped make Arnold Palmer The King
by Gary Baines
There’s a reason Arnold Palmer is front and center on the “Century of Golf in Colorado” poster that the CGA commissioned for last year as part of its 100th anniversary celebration.
When it comes to the unforgettable fashion in which Palmer won the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club — overcoming greats of the past (Ben Hogan) and the future (Jack Nicklaus) — it doesn’t get much bigger in the history of Colorado golf — or golf in general.
It pretty much says it all that a book about that tournament was titled, “Golf’s Greatest Championship”. Golf World magazine later called 1960 “The Greatest Year in Golf”.
There are plenty of places around the world that can draw a major connection with Palmer (pictured in 2009 at Cherry Hills), who passed away on Sunday at age 87. But suffice it to say Colorado would be near the top of the list.
Here are some of the memories which Palmer specifically left us in the Centennial State:
— My most indelible personal recollection came during a one-on-one interview with Palmer in the player lockerroom at Cherry Hills. In essence, this was The King in his castle, the place where he was coronated.
As we were chatting, Palmer was fiddling with the biggest wad of cash I’d ever see a person carry. It was several inches thick, tightly bound by rubber bands that were stretched considerably. That was Arnie — bigger than life in so many ways.
— Though Palmer won six major championships as a professional besides the 1960 U.S. Open, that event — and the final round on June 18, specifically — seemed to define his career.
Trailing by seven strokes going into the second 18 of a 36-hole Saturday, Arnie hitched up his pants and let ‘er rip with a drive on the 346-yard first hole at Cherry Hills.
Despite the green that year being totally surrounded by rough, Palmer’s tee shot found the putting surface and he two-putted for birdie from about 20 feet. He chipped in for birdie on No. 2 and ended up making six birdies on his first seven holes en route to a final-round 65. That was good enough to leave the closest of his late-tournament challengers — Nicklaus and Hogan — in his wake, along with the rest of the field. The 47-year-old Hogan, who had hit his first 34 greens in regulation that day, finished bogey-triple bogey to finish ninth. Nicklaus, a 20-year-old amateur paired with Hogan that day, placed second. In that remarkable final round, the lead changed hands a dozen times.
Palmer punctuated the victory with his famous visor toss on the 18th green. Skip Manning, an 11-year-old at the time, grabbed the visor and held onto it for 48 years until presenting it to Palmer in person in 2008. The headwear then went to the USGA Museum.
Palmer later said of driving the first green that day in 1960, “It took me four days to find that green — but when I did, the whole thrust of my life was altered.”
And it put Cherry Hills, already one of the country’s most notable courses, on another level.
When Colorado Golf Hall of Famer Ron Moore was the general chairman of the 1985 PGA Championship hosted by the club, he called Arnie driving the first green in 1960 “one of the three or four most famous (shots) in golf history. It put Cherry Hills on the map and was one of the most significant features of Arnold’s career. That was the only U.S. Open he won.”
And, of course, Palmer driving the first green has since been commemorated with a plague beside the first tee at Cherry Hills.
Palmer talked about his go-for-broke style on the eve of the 1985 PGA Championship at Cherry Hills.
“My father always told me to ‘go get ’em. It’s not going to come to you,'” Arnie said then. “I would much rather suffer the consequences than to not go at all.
“I always took a shot at whatever I saw. I never thought of it as that big a gamble. I just felt that you did what you had to to win. And that’s the only thing that’s ever mattered to me in golf — winning.”
In the wake of claiming the title at the 1960 U.S. Open, Palmer later in the ’60s became a member at Cherry Hills and he paid periodic visits over the years to the historic club. That included one in 2010, when Cherry Hills celebrated the 50th anniversary of his victory.
As he said in his 1985 apperance, “I came here for the first time in 1960 and have been a member for about 20 years. There is definitely some sentimentalism to it. I’ve certainly gotten a lot of support here.”
He also was on hand when the Palmer Cup — a Ryder Cup-style competition between college players from the U.S. and Europe — was held at Cherry Hills in 2009. The matches are named for him.
“(1960) was my only (U.S.) Open win; it was the highlight of my career,” Palmer said during that visit seven years ago. “I’d won the Masters in 1958 and 1960 in squeakers, then I won the Open by two shots, and it was a good shot (in the arm) for me.”
Palmer told the story countless times, but he never failed to entertain audiences with his recollections of the final day of the ’60 Open at Cherry Hills.
Trailing leader Mike Souchak by seven shots after the third round, Arnie encountered Pittsburgh Press sports writer Bob Drum, a good friend of Palmer’s, in the locker room before the final 18.
“I said, ‘Bob, if I shoot 65, do you think that will win?'” Palmer recounted. After at first ignoring Palmer, Drum said, ‘”‘Nothing’s going to help you.'”
Palmer noted that at the 1960 Masters, Hogan gave Palmer the Hogan driver that The King used for his famous shot at Cherry Hills. But given his endorsement deal at the time, Palmer admitted “making it look like a Wilson driver.” Then he added, “I’m not sure how I did hit it that far.”
After winning the U.S. Open, Palmer took the step — unusual back then for many American players — of going to the British Open. On his way over to St. Andrews in Scotland, Palmer traveled with Drum, and Arnie noted in a conversation that no amateur was going to duplicate Bobby Jones’ feat of winning the Grand Slam — claiming the U.S. Amateur, British Amateur, U.S. Open and British Open in the same year. So Palmer brought up the idea of a new Grand Slam — the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. Drum wrote about the notion shortly before the 1960 British Open and “it caught on right away,” said Palmer, noting that that was the genesis of the modern Grand Slam.
Palmer gave that Grand Slam a run in 1960, winning the Masters and the U.S. Open before finishing a shot behind winner Kel Nagle in the British Open. Palmer would win the British Open each of the following two years.
Add in Arnie’s huge charisma quotient in those early days of TV, and he was a figure that may very well never be matched in golf.
“Some guys have got it,” two-time major champion and NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller said once during a TV special on Palmer. “He’s certainly the John Wayne of golf, with a little Clint Eastwood thrown in. … He was the perfect guy at the perfect time to bring in televised golf. We needed a superstar. Arnie was the man.”
— Arnie in Other Colorado PGA Tour Events: Palmer played in The International at Castle Pines exactly once — in the inaugural year of 1986. In fact, the then-56-year-old was done after one official round — and on Wednesday, no less. He scored minus-4 Modified Stableford points that day and failed to advance in the daily-cuts format that was then in place. … Palmer also competed in another PGA Tour event in Colorado during his 50s — the 1985 PGA Championship at Cherry Hills. The previous year, the PGA of America had given The King a lifetime exemption into the PGA Championship. Palmer made the cut in ’85 at Cherry Hills, but finished in 65th place. … At the 1967 PGA Championship at Columbine Country Club, Palmer was more of a factor, placing 14th. … Palmer missed the cut in the 1978 U.S. Open.
— A Colorado King as a Senior Too: Although — for obvious reasons — when people think of Palmer and Colorado, they mostly associate him with the 1960 U.S. Open, that wasn’t his only tour-sanctioned victory in the state. The King also won the first Denver Post Champions of Golf, in 1982 at Pinehurst Country Club, and finished fourth in the same Senior Tour event each of the next three years.
In the last tour-sanctioned tournament he played in the state, Palmer placed 52nd at Cherry Hills in the 1993 U.S. Senior Open that Nicklaus won.
In 2007, Palmer would return to Colorado to be the first recipient — outside Will Nicholson Jr., himself — of the Nicholson Award, given in the Centennial State for a lifetime of commitment and dedication to the game of golf. (At left, Arnie signed a program for the event.)
— Grandson Lived in Colorado: Sam Saunders, grandson of Palmer and a PGA Tour player himself, lived in Fort Collins from late 2012 until earlier this year, when he and his family moved back to Florida — St. Augustine, to be exact.
— Courses Designed in Centennial State: Palmer designed — or co-designed with Ed Seay — several courses in Colorado. Included are Bear Creek Golf Club in west Denver, Lone Tree Golf Club, Eagle Ranch Golf Club in Eagle, and the old South Course at The Broadmoor Golf Club in Colorado Springs.