“Back Nine at Cherry Hills: The Legends of the 1960 U.S. Open,” a new sports documentary from HBO, recounts the dramatic win of the 1960 U.S. Open. Many view the golfers themselves as what truly made that tournament a special moment in America’s history - namely Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Producer Margaret Grossi said it was the human interest angle that drew her to the project.
“I love the idea of the generations,” Grossi said, “that all three men came from different eras in American history, different circumstances. It’s very much an American life kind of story.”
A story in Sports Illustrated by Dan Jenkins was the genesis for the documentary, which one of Grossi’s colleagues pitched at a staff meeting. Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, liked the idea and suggested incorporating personal details about the golfers’ lives into the film.
One of the first challenges film-makers encountered was a lack of footage on the 1960 Open tournament.
“We decided that the story of the three guys was interesting ... and we were going to try and find a way to tell it,” Grossi said. “We cobbled together a story from the resources we had.”
Those resources included photographs, film clips, books, newspaper articles and personal interviews. Palmer, Nicklaus and Jenkins were among those interviewed for the movie.
Golf buffs are already familiar with the climactic finish of the 1960 championship. For those who are not, it was any golfer’s win down to the final holes. As the documentary reveals the back story on Hogan, Nicklaus and Palmer, it becomes apparent what the win would mean to each man.
As one golf blogger put it: “It’s the Hogan-Nicklaus-Palmer connection that makes the tournament poignant. There was a remarkable moment at that U.S. Open, when golf’s past, present and future stood together on a tee. Ben Hogan was being eclipsed by Arnold Palmer, while the future, Jack Nicklaus waited. Palmer, the present, won the tournament; Nicklaus, the future finished second. And Hogan, the aging legend, slipped behind.”
Grossi said the background of each golfer - the era each was raised in, as well as their family and economic situation - manifested itself in how they played.
Through her research, Grossi learned that Hogan, who was raised during the Depression, grew up without his father. As an adult, he came across as being insular, guarded. He seemed focused on succeeding and getting away from the troubles of his childhood.
Born about 10 years before the start of WWII, Palmer grew up during WWII in an industrial, blue collar town in Pennsylvania. He was the antithesis of previous generations of golfers, many of whom were reserved, said Grossi. Palmer came across “like the kind of guy who went for broke.” He was jovial and even his body movements were animated.
“He let his shirt tail and emotions hang out,” Grossi said.
Nicklaus, 11 years younger than Palmer, grew up in a fairly well-to-do community in Ohio. He mastered his golf skills on the course at the local country club. Grossi described Nicklaus as being a very confident, concise, dedicated player.
“We are all products of our environments and our personalities come through,” Grossi said. “You can really see it in these three men and how they approached golf.”
Grossi pointed out that, in 1960, America was on the cusp of a changing of the guard.
Politics were shifting from Eisenhower’s traditionalism to Kennedy’s youthful charisma, a transition mirrored by Hogan and other golf old-timers making way for newcomers like Nicklaus and Palmer. Today’s political atmosphere carries a similar parallel.
Technology was also changing. Television was edging out radio and print media, creating a new forum for advertisers. Young, good-looking and energetic, Palmer was a popular spokesman for sports marketers.
“Back Nine at Cherry Hills” is a documentary not just about golf, but about the men behind the tee. Hogan, Nicklaus and Palmer represent the values, traditions and experiences from where and when they grew up.
“This (project) was very interesting to me because of what they represented in the American 20th century, outside of golf, even,” Grossi said. “You get the idea that each of them – in their given place and time – would have persevered and succeeded. I just have a deep appreciation for how hard the generations before me had to work to succeed. Hopefully those values are out there today.”
La Jolla families are invited to bring their blankets and picnic baskets to Ellen Browning Scripps Park on June 6. “Back Nine at Cherry Hills” will be shown at sundown. For information, call (888) 745-7425.