Cherry Hills History
Cherry Hills certainly has earned its place on the American golf landscape. Not only have nine USGA competitions been held here, but three PGA Championships have been staged on the 7,000-plus-yard layout. The champions have included some of the game’s greats: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Jay Sigel, Hubert Green, Andy North, Ralph Guldahl, Vic Ghezzi and Lewis Oehmig.
Cherry Hills Country Club was born in 1922 from wealthy businessmen in the city and carved from the earth by well-known designer William Flynn, who charged the princely sum of $4,500 for his architectural services.
Flynn was best known for his redesign of Shinnecock Hills on Long Island (site of the 2004 U.S. Open) and he routed a golf course worthy of national recognition.
But, as anyone knows, you can’t just buy tradition. This intangible is earned over time, stamped with the seal of approval by those who have walked its fairways and become champions under the most challenging of conditions.
Cherry Hills certainly has earned its place on the American golf landscape. Not only have nine USGA competitions been held here, but two PGA Championships have been staged on the 7,000-plus-yard layout. The champions have included some of the game’s greats: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Jay Sigel, Hubert Green, Andy North, Ralph Guldahl, Vic Ghezzi and Lewis Oehmig.
And in June 2005, Cherry Hills welcomed another USGA championship, the U.S. Women’s Open.
By hosting the Women’s Open, Cherry Hills joined Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., as the only courses to have hosted the U.S. Open, U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Amateur and U.S. Women’s Open.
“The first thing the USGA looks at when selecting a site is the golf course,” said Betse Hamilton, the USGA’s director of the U.S. Women’s Open Championship. “And it’s no secret that the USGA loves to come to Cherry Hills.”
Guldahl Triumphs In First U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club
Prior to 1938, no course west of Minneapolis had ever hosted a U.S. Open. But when the USGA awarded Cherry Hills the '38 Open, it came with a caveat: the club would have to raise $10,000 as a bond to assure a profitable return from holding this championship.
Will F. Nicholson Sr., who had served on the USGA Executive Committee and whose son, Will Nicholson Jr., would later become president of the USGA, was a bit adamant about this demand. “There’s never been a guarantee before,” the senior Nicholson explained. “We don’t have enough in our treasury to buy a case of ketchup!”
During these tough financial times – remember America was in the Great Depression and still trying to recover from the stock market crash of 1929 – Cherry Hills was just trying to stay afloat economically. It had survived the foreclosure of its land-holding company and continued to exist only because many of its members were willing to personally assure the interest on a big mortgage. The 1938 U.S. Open would prove to be a turning point toward better times.
Nicholson and Clarence Daly, a veteran Denver insurance leader, went up and down 17th Street, Denver’s financial district, in an attempt to get their business acquaintances to purchase $500 of the $10,000 guarantee. Once the money was raised, they turned to the greater task of getting city-wide cooperation for the U.S. Open. A season ticket for the championship went for $6.72 (including tax).
Total attendance for the week, including practice rounds, was 37,000 and the club netted $23,000. Visitors spent approximately $200,000 in the Denver area, making the week a huge financial success.
Cherry Hills was also represented in the qualifying process. That group included Eddie Held, the runner-up at the 1937 Trans-Mississippi, Joe Skul, the assistant club professional, and Claude Wright. Wright and Held qualified, but failed to make the 36-hole cut.
The USGA also changed the par from 72 to 71, converting the 18th hole from a par 5 to a par 4, a practice that is still done today at many courses. Lack of rain made for hard, unforgiving fairways and the competitors faced steep penalties for not hitting the fairway.
Ralph Guldahl, the 1937 champion, would go on to successfully defend his title with a six-stroke victory, the largest margin since 1921. Guldahl, one of six players to win back-to-back Opens, also captured the 1939 Masters.
During the 36-hole final day, Guldahl chipped in from 50 feet at 18 to conclude a third-round 71. He still stood four strokes behind Dick Metz entering the final round later that afternoon. Guldahl would shoot a final-round 69, while Metz stumbled home with a 79. Guldahl also had an interesting habit of combing his hair during actual rounds. It helped him ease the tension. “On an important shot, I try to steady my nerves,” he said. “That comb has saved me many a stabbed putt.”
But the 1938 Open is remembered more for what happened to Ray Ainsley than Guldahl’s grooming exploits. Ainsley still holds the distinction of posting the highest single-hole score in championship history. It occurred on the par-4 16 when he sent his approach shot into a creek that bordered the green. Instead of taking a drop, Ainsley kept hacking away at his ball, which was submerged in the running water. For nearly 30 minutes, Ainsley tried to extricate his ball. He eventually got the ball onto the fairway, pitched onto the green and holed his putt for a 19.
When asked by USGA Rules Committee Chairman Morton Bogue why he didn’t take a drop, Ainsley responded: “I thought I had to play the ball as it lay all the time.” It was only then he remembered the rule regarding taking relief from a water hazard.
His fellow competitor was Bud McKinney and he recalled years later the trials and tribulations of Ainsley.
“It was so funny watching him swipe at the ball,” said McKinney. “By the count of nine strokes, the scorekeeper (R.L. Red Anderson) got to laughing so hard he fell down. He said to me, ‘I can’t take this any longer, you take up the count.’ I walked down the creek behind Ainsley, and by this time, a couple of hundred people came down to see what was going on.
“He was hitting the ball like a wild man. He was hitting and hitting the ball and it would occasionally jump like a fish and land on the bank only to roll back in. That ball would jump up on the bank and you’d hear the crowd scream, ‘There it is! There it is!’ And then it would roll back in the water. At one point I remember Ainsley dropped a club in the water because the grip was so wet. He had lost probably 75 yards in distance by the time he finally got it out.”
Some people in the gallery even disputed his final score. Some thought he made a 21, others a 23. In the end, it was left up to McKinney to get his total correct. It stood at 19 and Ainsley posted a 96 for the round.
A Comeback Fit for a King
Thirty years after staging its first national championship, the club approached the USGA about the possibility of hosting the 1960 U.S. Open. By this time, Cherry Hills had already shown it had the teeth to challenge the world’s best players with the 1938 U.S. Open and 1941 PGA Championship, won by Vic Ghezzi.
Ninety-five percent of the membership voted in favor of having the U.S. Open and named Harold R. Berglund as the championship chairman. Berglund came up with the idea of producing an in-depth program that featured full descriptions of the golf course, profiles of the leading players and articles on the history of the game. To ensure profitability, the club sold sponsorships in the program. Forty pages sold almost immediately and by the time it had been published, some 210 pages were sold at $1,000 per page. Ticket sales were also brisk, with $65,000 worth going prior to the championship.
Club member Marcus Bogue built the largest scoreboard ever constructed at the time. Five miles of special fencing was erected by the State Highway Department and special squads of private detectives were hired to protect guests of the club.
The golf turned out to be memorable as well. At the midway point of the competition, Arnold Palmer, who had won the Masters that April, was eight strokes behind leader Mike Souchak. Souchak carried that momentum into round three, only to have his tee shot at 18 sail out of bounds. He might have become unnerved by the clicking of an amateur photographer, but nevertheless, he still owned a two-stroke lead after 54 holes. Palmer shot a third-round 72 and was seven behind.
In the locker room between rounds – 36 holes were still played on Saturday back then – Palmer asked his friend and longtime Pittsburgh sportswriter Bob Drum what it might take to win the Open. He asked what a 65 might do for his chances.
Drum responded: “For you, nothing. You are too far back.”
His answer angered Palmer. He was dead serious about shooting 65, even though Drum didn’t inform The King that only once had a player posted a 65 in the last round of a U.S. Open (Walter Burkemo).
Palmer used his final 20 minutes before his starting time to get his anger and frustration under control. He felt that he could drive the 346-yard par-4 first hole. He achieved the feat, but an overly excited Palmer nearly three-putted for par. He proceeded to birdie the first four holes and six of the first seven. Only a hiccup at eight prevented him from a 29 on the inward nine.
At the eighth hole, Palmer had a surprise visitor. It was Drum. “I asked him, ‘What are you doing here since I have no chance?’ ” said Palmer.
Souchak, meanwhile, missed several close putts down the stretch to kill his chances. Amateur Jack Nicklaus led briefly in the final round, but suffered back-to-back three-putt bogeys at 13 and 14. His second-place finish was the best by an amateur since 1933 and has not been achieved since.
Ben Hogan, gunning for a record fifth Open title, saw his fate sealed at the par-5 17th hole when his second shot spun back into the water. He followed his bogey at 17 with a triple bogey at 18.
That left Palmer, who birdied 11 and parred in for a 65 and a 72-hole total of 280 (four under). It would be Palmer’s first and only U.S. Open championship. He credited his success to caddie Bob Blair, who was chairman Berglund’s regular “looper.”
A North Wind Blows Into Denver
Cherry Hills members waited 28 years before the USGA would bring another Open back to its cherished course. In 1976, the USGA Senior Amateur was held at Cherry Hills and Lewis Oehmig, the only three-time winner of this event, defeated John Richardson in the final, 4 and 3. Richardson would eventually win the 1987 Senior Amateur and his son, Kemp, would win the title in 2001 and ’03, becoming the only father-son duo to win USGA titles.
The excitement around the 1978 Open was at a feverish pitch. Total attendance for the week eclipsed 132,000 and Bob Kirchner, the general chairman for the championship, had to convince the USGA to let the club sell an additional 5,000 tickets for the weekend.
High rough was a key component of the course conditions. Amateur Bobby Clampett completely whiffed a shot in the rough near the first green. Cherry Hills member and NFL Hall of Famer Doak Walker won’t forget the rough, either. Playing on the final day before the actual competition commenced, Walker hit his tee shot on the fifth hole into the deep stuff. After searching for a few minutes, Walker found a rake at a nearby bunker and started combing the area. He not only dug up his ball, but four others as well.
Four years earlier, Palmer and head architect, Ed Seay, were hired to do renovations to the course. Eight bunkers were built along with five new tees, which added 155 yards to the course (now 7,083 yards). The first hole, which Palmer drove in 1960, was lengthened by 58 yards, all but eliminating such a bold approach in 1978.
Only four players broke par in the first round, led by Hale Irwin’s 69. Relative unknown Andy North, Clampett and J.C. Snead posted 70s. Eight players bettered par in Friday’s second round, including North who had a second consecutive 70 and was the lone player under par through 36 holes. A third-round 71 left North with a one-stroke lead over 1978 Masters champion and 1965 U.S. Open winner Gary Player. Nicklaus, who was in contention, triple-bogeyed 13 and never threatened again.
North kept up his steady play in the last round and owned a two-stroke lead heading to the last hole. But his 3-iron tee shot found the rough and he was forced to lay up with an 8-iron. His third shot caught a gust of wind and found the greenside bunker. He blasted out to 4 feet below the hole. Twice North had to back off his bogey putt as the ball was oscillating from the wind gusts. But he calmed his nerves and holed the putt for the first of two U.S. Open victories.
North remains the last player to win the Open with an above-par score and the 285 ties for the highest winning score in the last 30 years (Tom Kite had a 285 in winning at par-72 Pebble Beach in 1992). It’s a testament to the challenging golf course, which did not yield a score below 68 all week.
Lefty Carves Out A Legacy
At the start of the 1990s, Phil Mickelson was arguably the country’s best amateur player. In four years at Arizona State University, the left-hander from San Diego had won the NCAA individual title three times and was an All-American all four years.
But six weeks before the best amateurs would convene at Cherry Hills for the U.S. Amateur, Mother Nature decided to throw an unexpected curveball at the club.
A nasty storm, producing baseball-size hail, hit the Denver area on July 11 and created severe damage to the golf course. Some of the craters were 4 inches wide and 2 inches deep. Former superintendent Dan Pierson remarked, “It’s definitely the biggest natural disaster I’ve ever seen.”
Cars in the parking lot were devastated. The ninth green was completely covered in hail. Rich McClintock, the general chairman, was brought to tears while escorting a local television reporter onto the course to inspect the wounds.
“I was getting choked-up and couldn’t swallow and I had to turn away as the cameraman was trying to take pictures,” said McClintock. “When I looked up, the reporter had tears running down her cheeks.”
A grounds crew of 40 along with member volunteers as well as caddies spent long hours on their hands and knees repairing the divots. Warm weather over the next month, combined with the aeration of the entire golf course, helped restore the layout to its championship conditions.
Mickelson backed up his claim as the top amateur by earning stroke-play medalist honors, including a 64 at Meridian Golf Club, the second course used in stroke-play qualifying. Three of his six matches went to the 18th hole, including his opener against John Grace and his quarterfinal match with Bob May. He ousted David Eger, 5 and 3, in the semis, before defeating his ex-high school teammate from San Diego, Manny Zerman, in the 36-hole final, 5 and 4.
During the event, two-time Amateur champion Jay Sigel, who won the 1983 Mid-Amateur at Cherry Hills, conducted a junior clinic. He later took the kids on the course and played holes one, two and 18. After hitting his second shot at No. 2, Sigel pulled out a tall, blonde female from the crowd and gave her his 5-iron. Standing at nearly 6 feet tall and wearing tennis shoes, the young girl hit her first shot into the bunker. But she hit her second shot to 20 feet of the hole. Sigel commented on the beauty of the young player’s swing. It turned out to be Jill McGill, who learned the game at Cherry Hills and would win the U.S. Women’s Amateur three years later.
Nostalgia Week Overcomes Cherry Hills Country Club
The 1993 U.S. Senior Open brought back many of the game’s greats, including 1960 Open winner Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf and Nicklaus, who had come up just short here as an amateur 33 years earlier. Cherry Hills pro Clayton Cole also qualified and survived the 36-hole cut with a 304 total (74-77-77-76).
Two-time Cherry Hills club champion and current club president Rich McClintock was also pressed into emergency duty for the third round as a non-competitive marker. By the time he was informed, McClintock, who hadn’t played in two weeks, barely had enough time to hit five 8-irons on the practice tee and a few putts. He wound up playing behind Billy Casper and behind defending champion Larry Laoretti and Palmer.
While Laoretti had predicted a winning score of between 10 and 12 under, the field only produced 22 sub-par scores in the first two rounds. Nicklaus put himself into contention with a third-round 67, but it was Weiskopf who made the late charge, hoping to duplicate Palmer’s rally of 1960. The Ohio State alum birdied one, three, four, five and eight to take the lead at 6 under. His longest putt was from 15 feet. But he would play the back nine in one over and his 67 would come up one short of Nicklaus.
Nicklaus fired a final-round 70 to post a 6-under 278, including a clutch birdie at 16. This was all to eerily similar to 1975 when the Golden Bear holed a monster putt at 16 to win his fourth Masters and snare the Green Jacket away from Weiskopf. After the birdie, a thunderous roar emanated from the gallery at 18 when it got posted on the scoreboard.
Thunder also came from the skies as a storm was rapidly approaching. Officials kept their radios close to their ears. Could they finish on time? Nicklaus not only beat Weiskopf but the rain as well. His final putt, a downhill three-footer for par was no gimme, but in typical Nicklaus fashion, he rammed the ball into the hole to secure the title.
“I hit that putt so hard,” said Nicklaus later, “and it was so fast, and above the hole, if I’d have missed it, I never would’ve made the one coming back.”
Adapted from an article by USGA staff writer David Shefter.