If there was a single swing that made him “The King,” the driver Arnold Palmer hit on the first hole at Cherry Hills was it.
Trailing by seven heading into the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open - and angered by a sports writer who, during a lunch break, told him he had no chance at a comeback - Palmer pulled the persimmon wood out on the tee box of the downhill, 346-yard hole. Palmer lashed at the balata-covered ball, which flew through the thin air, into the rough for one small hop, then tumbled onto the green.
He made birdie and his greatest comeback was underway. He shot 65 to leapfrog a young amateur named Jack Nicklaus and a legend named Ben Hogan, while leaving the third-round leader, Mike Souchak, three shots behind.
Today, there’s a plaque commemorating Palmer on the first tee box at Cherry Hills. Two years ago, when the PGA Tour stopped at the iconic course near Denver for a tournament, pros were given a chance to duplicate Palmer’s shot using persimmon and balata, the way he did back in the day.
Nobody could do it.
As if there were any doubt: There is no other King.
Palmer died Sunday afternoon of complications from heart problems. He was 87. He was admitted to UPMC Hospital in Pittsburgh on Thursday for some cardiovascular work, then weakened.
His death brings back waves of memories of his finest performances, none more so that the comeback at Cherry Hills that came during an era when the final 36 holes were played on Saturday and the break between the third and fourth rounds was long enough to grab lunch.
Palmer asked sports writers Bob Drum and Dan Jenkins how far they thought a 65 might go in the final round. It would leave him at 280.
“Doesn’t 280 always win the Open?” Palmer asked.
“Yeah, when Hogan shoots it,” Jenkins replied.
Drum’s response: “Won’t do you a damn bit of good.”
Palmer was so mad, he said, he couldn’t finish his hamburger.
The exchange with Drum “set the fire off inside, not that it wasn’t there,” Palmer said. “All I know is, I was pretty” upset.
He hit a few practice shots, went to the first tee, and a few hours later, he had his third major championship and first at the U.S. Open.
Other victories Palmer will be long remembered for:
1954 U.S. Amateur:
A 24-year-old Palmer beat Bob Sweeney to win the National Amateur golf championship in Detroit, Michigan on August 28, 1954. The match pitted a graying millionaire playboy against the upstart Palmer in what many dubbed a battle of the classes.
1955 Canadian Open:
Palmer captured the Canadian Open championship, his first PGA Tour victory, at the Weston Golf Club. Palmer set a record that held for many years as the lowest score- he finished -23 - in Open history. To celebrate Weston’s 75th anniversary in 1990, a Skins game was held featuring Arnold Palmer, Mark Calcavecchia, Ray Floyd and Dave Barr.
Palmer arrived at the Masters with eight titles but very little professional major championship experience. He had yet to play in a British Open or PGA Championship, and had finished tied for seventh a year earlier at the Masters. A third-round 68 vaulted him into a tie for the lead with Sam Snead.
Palmer and Ken Venturi, who was three strokes back, were paired for the final round, and Venturi trailed by just one stroke by the 12th hole. Then Palmer’s tee shot to the par-3 hole landed behind the green and plugged. Palmer believed he was entitled to relief because the ball was embedded, and Venturi agreed.
But the rules official on the scene did not. He ruled Palmer had to play without relief. There was an argument, Palmer eventually played the ball and gouged it out of the turf, hitting a poor chip past the hole, then two-putting for a double-bogey 5.
Venturi had made par and assumed the lead. But Palmer announced he was playing a second ball and made par.
Venturi has always believed Palmer played the second ball incorrectly.
“There was never a question in my mind that I wasn’t right about the 12th hole,” said Palmer, who went on to win by a shot over Fred Hawkins and Doug Ford and by two over Venturi.
Palmer birdied the final two holes to win by one stroke over runner-up Ken Venturi. It was the second of Palmer’s four Masters victories and the second of his seven major titles.
Palmer, age 30 at the time, also won the U.S. Open in 1960 and was the runner-up at the British Open.
Palmer was the sole leader after all four rounds and was the second wire-to-wire winner at the Masters, following Craig Wood in 1941. Subsequent wire-to-wire winners were Nicklaus in 1972, Raymond Floyd in 1976, and Jordan Spieth in 2015.
1961 British Open:
Palmer won the first of two consecutive British Open Championships by finishing one stroke ahead of Dai Rees. He’d been runner-up the year before in his first Open, but the 1961 victory was the fourth of his seven major titles. He was the first American to win the Claret Jug since Ben Hogan in 1953.
Palmer won the first three-way Masters playoff - beating defending champion Gary Player and Dow Finsterwald - for the third of his four titles at Augusta National. Palmer shot a 31 on the back nine to finish at 68 on Monday, three strokes ahead of runner-up Player. It was Nicklaus’ first appearance at the Masters as a professional.
1962 British Open:
Palmer’s second major championship of the year - and No. 6 of his career - was a runaway at the British Open at Troon Golf Club in Scotland. He finished at 12 under par, six shots ahead of runner-up Kel Nagle - and at least 13 strokes better than anyone else in the field.
Terrific from start to finish, Palmer easily wrapped up his fourth Masters title for his seventh - and final - major championship. No one had won four times at Augusta National until Palmer reached that number thanks to three rounds in the 60s, followed by a closing 70 that was plenty good enough: He beat runners-up Nicklaus and Dave Marr by six strokes.
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