Three eras intersected at ‘wildest Open ever’
Fifty years of dust has settled, the roars have long since subsided, the cement into which legends are encased is impenetrable. And still, for many, nothing has come along to surpass that three-day golf drama played out in the shadows of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains.
The 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills reigns supreme.
“It was almost metaphysical,” Martin Davis said.
The publisher behind exquisite books on Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Jack Nicklaus, Davis let his words melt into air, almost out of deference to the aura of that unforgettable championship half a lifetime ago.
“It was a convergence,” Davis said. “It was the inflection point where a line changes direction, and three eras were brought together.”
Hogan. Palmer. Nicklaus.
Their legends didn’t merely cross paths in that U.S. Open 50 years ago; it was atoms smashing to produce what many will argue was the grandest day in major-championship history. But as scintillating as the Hogan-Palmer-Nicklaus entry made that 36-hole finale on June 18, 1960, what solidifies it is the great mix of impressive names who were right there.
“The wildest Open ever,” wrote the esteemed Herbert Warren Wind in Sports Illustrated.
At 36 holes, Mike Souchak’s then-record 135 led by three over Doug Sanders, but Dow Finsterwald, Jack Fleck and Jerry Barber were all just five back. Billy Casper, Don Cherry and 48-year-old Sam Snead were six off the lead. Then came a foursome at 142 consisting of major champions young (Gary Player, 24) and old (Hogan, 47; Julius Boros, 40), and a 20-year-old of major intrigue – Nicklaus, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.
“We were all seeing for the first time what the game would look like when power came into golf,” Deane Beman said. “There were guys who would hit it long, but Jack was different. Jack had power, but Jack could also play golf.”
No one disagreed, but neither was anyone conceding anything.
“So much has happened since then,” Finsterwald said. “It’s hard to remember. But I know, like many, I had a chance to win. Only just one man did – and it took a superlative effort.”
That one man, of course, was Arnold Palmer, 30, who represented the middle of the three eras that intersected during that warm week outside of Denver.
“Literally, it was the last hurrah for Hogan,” Davis said, “and it was the beginning of Nicklaus. But it was the high point of Palmer.”
• • •
Front-row seat to history
Paul Harney, then 30, was a steady force on the PGA Tour, already a three-time winner. But at 1-over 143 through two rounds, eight shots behind Souchak, there was a lot of work to do.
Among the 14 players ahead of Harney was Hogan, whom Harney respected. Another was Nicklaus, who hardly stirred Harney’s interest.
“I had no thoughts (about Nicklaus),” Harney said. “I had never seen him before.”
Playing two groups behind Hogan and Nicklaus, Harney was paired that day with Palmer, also at 143. The quiet man from Massachusetts suspected it could be interesting. “As far as I’m concerned, he was the best competitor of all time,” Harney said.
Each shot 72 but saw things differently.
Harney said “we were lucky to be only seven behind, because Mike (Souchak) double-bogeyed his 18th hole in the morning.” But Palmer? He suggested that he was still in it, that 65 would put him at 280, a score that often wins the U.S. Open.
“I was nearby when (Pittsburgh sports writer Bob) Drum snorted at him at lunch, that he had no chance,” Harney said. “Arnold was steamed when he got to the first tee (for the final 18).”
• • •
The race tightens
Maybe Palmer was silly to think he could win; others, however, had good reason to believe they could.
Boros, for instance. His morning 68 had enabled him to shave five off his deficit, so now he trailed Souchak (73–208) by just two. Also trailing by two were Finsterwald and Barber. Sitting three back were Hogan and Nicklaus, after having matched 69s.
Fleck, who had stunned Hogan five years earlier in a U.S. Open playoff, was at 212; Player, the reigning British Open champ, at 213; and Snead and Casper, at 214, were among 14 who sat ahead of Palmer.
Cherry Hills was the cause for the charges and sub-par scores, Wind suggested.
“Simply too short a layout to examine the skills of our present-day professional and amateur stars,” he wrote.
Finsterwald, who knew the course well and later became an honorary member, disagrees.
“It can be attacked early, but from holes 8 through 18, well, it becomes very difficult,” he said.
• • •
Artist at work
Two months shy of his 48th birthday and seven years removed from three consecutive major titles, Hogan was a part-time player with a full-time passion for the U.S. Open.
He had finished in the top 10 in his 14 consecutive Opens from 1940 to ’59, but if an opening 75 suggested that run would come to an end, a second-day 67 hinted otherwise.
When in Saturday’s finale Hogan put on a ballstriking clinic by hitting 34 consecutive greens in regulation, his playing competitor felt blessed.
“I learned how to play golf (that day),” Nicklaus said. “I almost won the golf tournament, but I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was watching Hogan play golf, because I was going to learn from how he played golf.
“And I learned a ton that day.”
• • •
Legend in the making
Deane Beman, who shot 74-74 and missed the cut at Cherry Hills, stuck around to watch his fellow amateur, Nicklaus. Nothing he saw was a surprise to Beman, save for when
he studied Hogan during that majestic 36-hole day.
“Hogan never paid attention to nobody,” said Beman, who would go on later that summer to win the first of his two U.S. Amateur titles. “He was in his own zone. But for the first time I noticed he was watching (an opponent). He was watching Jack. I think he fully understood the potential Jack had.”
Tied at level-par 142 to start the morning 18, Hogan and Nicklaus were both 2 under through 54.
A short time later, Nicklaus ignited mountain roars with an eagle at the par-5 fifth, and it didn’t seem unthinkable that the amateur could win. However, roars coming from two groups back indicated someone else was making noise.
• • •
A king steps forward
Among the five victories Palmer had registered earlier in the 1960 season was a second Masters title. He had finished within the top 5 in 11 of 18 starts and continued to demonstrate an unmatched flair.
But driving the green at the 346-yard, par-4 first to secure a two-putt birdie? Pretty brazen stuff, followed by the uncanny. Palmer pitched in from 35 feet at the par-4 second, knocked a wedge to a foot at the par-4 third, then slam-dunked an 18-footer at the fourth.
Birdies at Nos. 6 and 7 got Palmer to 6 under on his round, 4 under for the tournament, and Harney was like the rest of the Cherry Hills crowd.
Harney looked at the scorecard he was keeping for Palmer, who was out in 30.
“I thought I had played pretty good on the front nine. I was even par, but he beat me by five.”
• • •
‘Whirlgig of shifting positions’
That is how Wind described what took place over the final 18 holes that unforgettable Sunday. Palmer out in 30, Nicklaus in 32, Hogan with nine consecutive pars . . . but that was only half of the saga. Souchak’s retreat provided the other half.
Again paired with Sanders – who would shoot 77-82 that day to go from second to T-46 – Souchak went out three groups behind Palmer and five behind Nicklaus-Hogan. He failed miserably to keep the roars going; his opening drive found the creek and led to a double.
When he bogeyed No. 9 to turn in 36, Souchak relinquished the lead to Nicklaus, who was 5 under, but this would be a day to strap yourself in. The lead would change hands a dozen times, and at one point or another, six players had at least a share.
Nicklaus fell into a tie with Palmer, Boros and Fleck when he three-putted from 10 feet at the 13th, then fell out for good with a three-putt at the 14th. With an inward 39 and a round of 71, Nicklaus would finish second.
Others seemed poised to win:
• Finsterwald, only he pulled his tee shot at the ninth and made double. Then he three- putted 10 for bogey.
“A lot of steam was gone,” he said.
• Fleck, except three-putt bogeys at the 13th, 15th and 16th sent him reeling.
• Cherry, who knocked a 4-iron to 3 feet at the 15th and heard Snead tell him, “You’re going to win this championship.” He missed the putt and finished with bogeys at 17 and 18.
• Boros, the 1952 Open winner squeezed in the pairings behind Nicklaus-Hogan and in front of Palmer, putted poorly down the stretch and shot 73.
With a warm mountain sun beating down, Hogan birdied the 15th to pull into a tie at 4 under with Palmer and Fleck.
Two holes later, the script was left in arguably the deftest hands in golf history: Hogan’s.
• • •
Short – and wet
Cherry Hills’ par-5 17th, which played at 548 yards, ends with an island green guarded by a 12-foot stream. Hogan played it as a three-shot hole, like most everyone else.
A driver and 3-iron got Hogan within 55 yards, but with the hole cut just beyond the stream, it was a delicate shot. Nicklaus played safely, to 20-25 feet.
His fifth U.S. Open within grasp, Hogan wanted closer. What he got was bitter heartache.
Various historical accounts say Hogan’s shot hit the green, but fierce spin sucked it back into the bank of the stream, terrible misfortune for a splendid shot under pressure. Wind reported differently – “he lobbed a soft pitch that was 2 feet too short,” he wrote – and Beman agreed.
“It never had a chance,” said Beman, who walked all 36 holes inside the ropes. “It never hit the green. He didn’t spin the ball; he hit a pitching wedge and laid back the face. I think he just hit it one groove higher than he wanted.”
“He wanted to win and gambled; unfortunately, the gamble did not pay off,’’ Player said.
Years later, Hogan told CBS: “I find myself waking up at night thinking of that shot. There isn’t a month that goes by that it doesn’t cut my guts out.”
• • •
After the shock
As Hogan removed his shoe so he could stand with his right foot in the stream and play his fourth shot, Boros and Player watched from the fairway, Palmer and Harney from the tee. When his par-save attempt from 8 feet went wide, Hogan fell one behind. Holes away, Fleck was riding a three-putt bogey train. The combination of events lifted Palmer into the outright lead.
He stayed there, of course, thanks to a conservative par at 17 and an up-and-down from left of the 18th green. A historic 65. From seven strokes back, Palmer had stormed to the greatest comeback in U.S. Open history.
Not that others don’t remember the flip side to that story.
“Handed it to them on a silver platter,” Fleck said.
“I played with a kid today (Nicklaus) who could’ve won this by five, if he knew what he was doing,” Hogan famously told reporters. Hogan would double-bogey 18, shoot 73 and tie for ninth.
“One guy won,” Finsterwald said, “but a lot of people lost and a lot of people left thinking, ‘I could have, I should have.’ ”
Yes, but only one man did.
And because he did, a King’s legend was sealed forever.