Arnold Palmer's death at age 87 has prompted plenty of memories about the golfing legend, who helped bring the game into the modern age through his combination of tremendous skill, aggressive play and a media savvy that today's athletes emulate whether they realize it or not.
But of his 62 wins on the PGA tour, including seven majors, one stood above all the rest — and it happened right here.
Palmer's triumph at the 1960 U.S. Open, held at the Cherry Hills Country Club, was the signature victory of his career because of the way it epitomized him stylistically. He had no realistic chance of coming out on top at the tourney, given that he was a seemingly insurmountable seven strokes off the lead going into the final round. But rather than wilting before this challenge, he rose to it, firing a stunning 65 that helped him climb past fourteen other competitors to win his only U.S. Open title.
But don't believe us. Take it from Palmer himself.
On the website for Arnie's Army, his charitable foundation, Palmer explained the genesis of the "Arnie's Army" name, which was used to describe the hordes of fans who would follow him from hole to hole at events: In 1959, Johnny Hendricks, a reporter for the Augusta Chronicle, used the phrase in coverage of that year's Masters tournament. But Palmer cited Cherry Hills in describing his army's impact. The excerpt reads:
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In 1960, during the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Denver, the gallery was back in my corner like never before. After the third round on Saturday morning I trailed the leader, Mike Souchak, by seven strokes. I knew I could catch him. That afternoon my "charge" began and my “Army” was there supporting me. I birdied the first four holes and by the time he reached the fifth tee, it seemed like everyone at Cherry Hills was rooting for me to win. I went on to shoot 65, the lowest (at that time) final round score in U.S. Open history, for a total of 280. I won my first U.S. Open having completed the largest comeback in the sixty-five-year history of the Open. The cheers of the crowd that day will always be among my greatest memories. I know the support of Arnie’s Army had as much to do with my winning the championship as the shots I played.
More evidence of the importance the experience held for Palmer can be found in A Golfer's Life, his autobiography, co-written by James Dodson and published in 1999. The book devotes an entire chapter to Cherry Hills, with Palmer offering a highly detailed, and extremely personal, account of the tournament from beginning to end.
"The preeminent golf championship in the world was being contested that year at Cherry Hills in Denver, a course I knew a little bit about thanks to President Eisenhower, who happened to be a member there," Palmer wrote. "President Eisenhower loved the course and predicted that I would do pretty well there."
Nonetheless, Palmer entered the tournament on what he described as "a mini-'slump,'" and he hardly shook off the doldrums immediately. He recounted hitting his tee shot on the first hole into Little Dry Creek, which wasn't dry at all; officials had pumped it full of water for the Open, and his ball was swept further downstream, away from the green. Palmer took a one-stroke penalty and prepared to hit from the drop spot. But things didn't get better.
"My next shot glanced off a tree, and my fourth attempt flew over the green," he wrote. "I chipped five feet short of the hole for my fifth, then sank the putt for a nice fat opening double-bogey six."
His reaction? "You could have fried an egg on my forehead at that moment. I was so furious with myself for blowing a hole I clearly should have birdied."
Such gaffes put Palmer well behind the leaders going into the tournament's last day, when the situation began to turn around, as reflected in this passage:
I walked straight onto the tee, pegged up by ball, and drove it onto the front of the first green.
There was an explosive cheer from the gallery on the tee and around the green, producing one of the strongest thrills of my career. Marching off the tee, I felt a powerful surge of adrenaline, maybe the greatest I had ever experienced. By the time I reached the green, I knew something big was happening to me. The eagle opportunity was long and not the easiest to read from that position on the green, but I coaxed it close enough to make people gasp and then made a lengthy comebacker for a birdie — a vastly better start than the previous three visits to the green. Around me, the gallery was running to find places on the second tee and fairway. There, I missed my approach shot to the green, but I chipped in for a birdie from the fringe, producing another pulse-quickening roar. A good wedge approach at three left me only a one-footer to convert for my third consecutive birdie, and I followed that up at the fourth with an eighteen-footer that dropped for my fourth birdie in a row.
The field at the Open was formidable; included among the players were all-time great Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus, who was just an amateur at the time. (Nicklaus wound up finishing second at Cherry Hills — a finish that served notice to the golfing establishment about the arrival of a budding superstar.) But Palmer bested them all and then rushed to the clubhouse phone to inform his wife, Winnie (she died in 1999), about what had happened.
Somehow I got a call through to Winnie from the noisy pressroom to her parents' house in Coopersburg. They'd been on the road, as it turned out, when they heard on the radio that Arnold Palmer was about to pull off one of the biggest comebacks in Open history. By then, of course, the verdict was in amid the long shadows of that Denver afternoon. My final-round 65, in fact, had overtaken fourteen players and at the time was the best finish ever by an Open champion, beating Gene Sarazen's 1932 finish by one stroke.
When I finally got Winnie on the phone amid the hubbub of excited voices, my heart was still thumping wildly. I decided to skip most of the details, though.
"Hiya, lover," I said to her. "Guess what? We won!"
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So did golf fans in Denver and beyond. Here's a PGA video of Palmer recounting his big win.