The Backspin Issue: 1960March 22, 2010

Flyin' High

As Ben Hogan was making a begrudging exit from and Jack Nicklaus a grand entrance onto golf's main stage, Arnold Palmer was front and center as the game's soaring, incandescent figure

New Leading Man: In contrast to golf's previous king, Palmer let fans know how he felt, and his emotions were clear after finishing birdie-birdie to win the 1960 Masters.

New Leading Man: In contrast to golf's previous king, Palmer let fans know how he felt, and his emotions were clear after finishing birdie-birdie to win the 1960 Masters.

Fifty years have not dimmed the fun of remembering 1960, golf's golden year. Eras collided. A star was born. The unlikely and the absurd took center stage, and then, just in time, they left. A moody brooder with atrocious karma nearly won the Masters. A nightclub singer almost won the U.S. Open. Something a mere writer said to a player in the middle of the year's most dramatic event made a difference in its outcome. In Scotland in July, a well-known American pro received the news that the never-rained-out British Open had been rained out by firing his wet shoes and a couple of Wilson Staff irons across the St. Andrews locker room. Even the USGA added a bizarre note. As an experiment, the men in blue blazers gelded the out-of-bounds penalty. In '60, it was distance only. In other words, a ball hit over the fence meant only that you had to re-tee and get one in play -- and you were lying two, not three.

Ultimately, the candlepower of the brightest star in golf history shone through the crazy subplots. The 1960 season was Arnold Palmer's year, and his ascendancy represented a dramatic change from the way the previous Greatest Player did business. Ben Hogan had considerable appeal, of course; not for nothing had Hollywood made a movie of his life while he was still living it. But Hogan kept his concentration mask on until the trophy presentation, only then showing the cameras and fans two rows of beautiful teeth. But from the moment Arnie arrived in the parking lot, he winced and grinned as the moment demanded, and he was on TV, while Ben belonged to the newsreels. The Hawk did not care for Palmer (the feeling was mutual) and would have preferred to be succeeded at the top by his acolyte, Ken Venturi. Perhaps the major shock of 1960 was that the limping, 47-year-old Hogan played as if he did not want to be succeeded at all.

Enter the wild card, an Ohio State undergrad and Phi Gamma Delta brother who came onstage with sportswriter adjectives attached so securely that they seemed to be part of his name. Beefy, burly, stocky, blond, crew-cut Jack Nicklaus took a break from his sophomore year and the beer blasts at the frat house to play a little golf. Palmer knew the kid, having played an exhibition with him in 1958, with Arnie shooting 62 to Jack's 68. That was about right. Palmer had just won that year's Masters and could give just about anyone in the world a couple of shots a side. Two years later, however, beefy-burly-stocky had only gotten better and more experienced. He had won the 1959 U.S. Amateur and had played in the U.S. Open three times and the Masters once.

It was as if Palmer stood at the center of a teeter-totter in 1960, with the grim gray man at one end and the heavyset youth on the other. The avatars of three overlapping periods, each had a compelling persona and personal history. It all set up so perfectly. The performers did not disappoint.

Tour rookie Al Geiberger played well at the Pensacola Open in March and found himself in the final group with the game's hottest player. "I was awestruck," Geiberger recalled years later. "I just thought, 'You can't do that in golf.' "

After a ho-hum start, Palmer came to the ninth green and assumed the position: knees touching, pigeon toes almost touching, shoulders so hunched they almost contacted his ears, giant paws encircling a Wilson 8802 bearing hammer and vice marks. Then the wristy slap shot at the hole: suddenly, four birdies fell in a row, about 60 feet worth of putts. Informed on the penultimate tee that he needed two more birdies to win, the genius holed from 17 feet on 17 and from 32 feet on 18. It was Palmer's third consecutive win and fourth win of the young season. He had banked a mind-boggling $24,266.86. He played two more tournaments, then went to Augusta for a week of practice. He wanted to get used to a new putter.

But the 1960 Masters must really be relived through the dark of eyes of Venturi. The son of San Francisco won the Crosby in January, but he would have traded a hundred grip-and-grins with Bing for one with Bobby Jones. As a 24-year-old amateur in 1956, he led the Masters by four going into the last round, then contrived to shoot 80 to lose by one to Jack Burke Jr.

His tragic Augusta opera continued in '58. Locked in a final-round duel with Palmer, with whom he was paired, Ken had to endure a delay near the 12th green while Palmer and a rules official went back and forth. Was Arnold's ball embedded? Was it in the bunker? Could he, should he, play another ball? Arthur Lacey of the R&A said no, maybe, and OK. Long story short, Arnold made a 5 with his original ball and a par 3 with the alternate. Venturi was sure the 5 would count, which would give him a one-shot lead. But before Palmer putted for eagle on No. 13, an official whispered that he should mark down a par on 12. Arnie made the eagle putt. Ken, suddenly three behind instead of one ahead, missed a couple of short ones on the way in and finished fourth. An hour or so later, Doug Ford, the '57 champ, helped the new king into a green jacket.

"I'm not bitter, and I'm not saying I would have won," Venturi recalled. "But the 1958 Masters was a big deal because neither Arnold nor I had won a major yet."

That Palmer and Venturi were neck and neck going into the final round of the 1960 Masters surprised no one. But one shot off the lead was -- who the hell? Hogan? Statistically the worst putter in the tournament, Ben compensated for his adult-onset yips by hitting more greens in regulation than anyone -- he would miss only 10 of the 72. But the grace and accuracy of his striking could not overcome his butterfly stroke on the greens. "It is hard to recall a player of his class ever putting so poorly," mused Herbert Warren Wind in Sports Illustrated. "Perhaps Vardon in his 50s." Hogan shot 76 and tied for sixth.

Nicklaus also had a good-hit, no-putt tournament -- but still tied for low amateur and T-13 on rounds of 75-71-72-75. It's simplifying things only a little to say that at the end, it came down again to Venturi, the man who idolized Hogan, and Palmer, who disliked him. The friction had started in Augusta a few years before, the day Arnold played a practice round with Burke, Dow Finsterwald and the Hawk. Afterward, Hogan ignored protocol and sat at a different table at lunch and insulted young Arnold again by asking in a loud-enough-to-overhear voice, "This Palmer -- how did he get in the Masters?"

In the final round Palmer snapped his drive on the first tee so far left he was in the ninth fairway -- pretty much how he played in his practice round with Hogan -- but then threaded a long iron through and around pines to about 12 feet from the hole. Made the putt. That's how he got into the Masters.

When Venturi holed what he thought was the winning putt -- on the 18th, from 12 inches, for par -- he stared into the hole for a long second or two. He had shot 70, the day's low round, and led the tournament at five under. Palmer had four holes left and a one-shot deficit. A driver and 1-iron got him over the pond on 15, but he could only manage a par. On the 16th, a lucky two-putt; on 17, he hit another mediocre iron shot, 35 feet from the hole, which was cut far right. But then, just like at Pensacola, the angels sang. After the crowd hushed, the somber Palmer settled into his rigor mortis putting stance -- and backed off. Deep breaths, the overheated gallery again quiet as mice -- and he backed off again. Finally, the star struck. With its last fraction of energy, the ball fell gently right, and in. Pandemonium, and the score was tied.

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for three rounds at Cherry Hills but rallied

from a seven-shot deficit with a 65. (John G.

Zimmerman/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

After exhaling L&M smoke in the middle of the 18th fairway, Palmer hit a gorgeous 6-iron almost in the hole. Venturi watched on TV in the Butler Cabin as his nemesis, destiny's darling, holed from six feet, for a birdie-birdie finish and the win.

In last year's HBO documentary about the 1960 U.S. Open, "Back Nine at Cherry Hills," several of the principals spoke candidly about themselves and each other.

Palmer on Hogan: "The chatter at the tournament was this was going to be his last appearance … He was not a great guy. He was a great player."

Nicklaus on his first year at Ohio State, which was the first year he didn't play basketball: "I gained 50 pounds. I tried to drink all the beer in Columbus."

Palmer on Nicklaus' chances: "He was an amateur. I discounted him."

Nicklaus on Hogan, with whom he was paired for Saturday's concluding double round: "He was past the prime of his career. But he was not past the prime of the way he hit a golf ball."

Hogan died in 1997, so he could not participate (and wouldn't have anyway), but his 1983 reminiscence for CBS is still affecting, no matter how many times you've seen it. "I find myself waking up at night thinking of that shot right today," he said, about his wedge to the 71st green at Cherry Hills. Tears stood in his eyes, and his voice descended to a whisper. "There isn't a month that goes by that that doesn't cut my guts out."

The epic '60 U.S. Open was arguably golf's greatest-ever tournament, mostly because of who won it and how, and partly due to the identities and back stories of the dozen men who damn well could have won if only someone hadn't started a movie camera at the top of their backswings. Historians and those of a certain age will remember the faces and names of Mike Souchak, Julius Boros, Dow Finsterwald, Jack Fleck, Jerry Barber and the darkest dark horse, singer/golfer Don Cherry, and how they managed not to win this crazy tournament. The lead changed hands 12 times in the final round. With two holes left, it came down to the three immortals: Palmer, Hogan and Nicklaus.

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didn't threaten at Augusta. (Time Life

Pictures/Getty Images)

Up until his violent strike on the first tee in the final round, Arnold's most significant shot had been his tee ball on 14 during round two, which he hit O.B. right by something like 50 yards. But he lay only two after he whacked another one, thanks to the rule change. Some highlight. After three rounds the Masters champion stood two over par, seven shots behind the leader, Souchak, and going nowhere. After a brief lunch break during which he definitely did not get the encouragement he was looking for, Palmer hit the signature shot of the tournament and perhaps of his career, a balls-out driver over a creek, through high, dry rough, and onto the fringe of the 346-yard first hole. Birdie. Then birdie-birdie-birdie, and here we go again.

To the dozen other players in the hunt, Arnie's charge was like fajitas being served at another table. The only competitors not distracted by the sizzle were playing together two groups ahead. Both Hogan and Nicklaus had shot 69 in the morning and were getting along famously. Jack took the lead after 12 holes, then, on 13, in a miscue he will rue forever, he decided to hit a tap-in over a poorly repaired ball mark, and missed. Hogan's turn: He gained a share of the lead on 15 when he finally made a putt (he hadn't missed a green all day), and he came to 17 tied with Fleck and Palmer. And then he hit the shot that would forever cut his guts out, a pitching wedge third to the par 5 that spun off the front of the green and into the water.

Palmer played smart ball down the stretch, preserving his 65 for a two-shot win over Nicklaus. He threw his hat and grinned and looked to the sky. He left the country the next day. Arnie was going to St. Andrews to play in his first British Open and to win his third major in a row.

The new king's new set of fans could not miss his love of the game. Yes, Hogan had riveted Scotland in '53, in his first and only British Open appearance. But while Hogan hit hundreds of balls to learn the punches and under-the-wind bumps necessary for successful links golf, Palmer adapted quickly, even joyfully. When the situation called for it, he hit 1-irons gripped down to the steel and left his wedge in the bag.

But others had more experience with this game. Two of them, Roberto De Vicenzo of Argentina and Australian Kelvin David George Nagle, practically ran away from the field Wednesday and Thursday. Roberto led Kel by two after his 67-67, and Kel led everyone else by five. Palmer's 71-70 left him seven shots behind going into Friday's double round. His comeback -- by now it seemed inevitable -- featured a birdie 4 on the 14th, the Long Hole, where De Vicenzo hit his tee shot on top of the stone border wall to the right and out-of-bounds and made 7. As the wind gusted and the gray sky began to boil, Arnold three-putted the Road Hole green for the third time in a row. The leader, Nagle, one-putted it for the third consecutive time.

After Nagle holed out on the 18th for par and a two-shot lead on De Vicenzo and a four-shot advantage on Palmer, the heavens opened, turning the Valley of Sin into a lagoon. The R&A postponed the final round at 3 p.m., which infuriated Our Hero, who had confidence and momentum and had picked up three shots on the lead with his 70. "Drat!" Arnold said, or some variant of drat, and threw his shoes and clubs in the suddenly quiet locker room.

Fast forward to round four, and Palmer in a pickle: two down to Nagle, two to play, and his ball over the green and nearly on the Road. Arnold putted up the hill to four feet, and hit a wedge to four feet on Home, two brilliant shots when he needed them most. His par-birdie finish for 68 gave him 279...and second place. Nagle won by one. "It was the biggest disappointment of my life," Palmer told me 30 years later.

Jay Hebert won the PGA Championship at Firestone; Palmer finished T-7 and Hogan missed the 54-hole cut after a third-round 78. Nicklaus, on the other hand, finished his competitive year with a crescendo. His 66-67-68-68 at the World Amateur Team event at Merion was 18 shots below what Hogan had shot there in winning the U.S. Open in 1950.

The crystal clarity of hindsight reveals what glory and disaster lay ahead for these three. Hogan faded from the competitive scene after 1960 yet maintained a presence in the game as a manufacturer of clubs. Thanks to TV and IMG -- and his own brilliance -- Brand Palmer exploded. He would win the next two British Opens but never another U.S. Open and never the PGA Championship that would have completed his résumé. The inevitable high-noon showdown between Arnold and Nicklaus occurred in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Palmer, using a Hogan driver, lost a playoff to the relentless young man from Ohio. Golf's Ali and Frazier remained locked in rivalry for the remainder of the decade.

What had golf in 1960 been besides great entertainment? Did it mean anything beyond that? Certainly, it sharpened interest in Arnold, and raised awareness of Jack. But surely a deeper conclusion could be drawn from watching Hogan limp up the hill to the final green at Cherry Hills: Time, not the other guys, is an athlete's real enemy.

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One Down, Three To Go: After winning his second Masters title, Palmer received congratulations from 1959 winner Art Wall. (Augusta National/Getty Images)