FINAL ROUND of the U.S. Open, 1960, Cherry Hills. The dour Ben Hogan, the charismatic Arnold Palmer, the bland Jack Nicklaus, all in contention on the back nine. Old school, new school, prep school. Golf's past, present, future, the drama crackling through Denver's thin air like bolts of lightning.

HBO has ventured into golf for the first time with a sparkling documentary called "Back Nine at Cherry Hills: The Legends of the 1960 U.S. Open." It debuts tomorrow, the night before Tiger Woods and everybody else tees off in the Open at Torrey Pines.

If you're any kind of student of the game, you know how that 1960 Open with its narrow fairways and knee-high rough turns out, but if you're any kind of student of the game, you won't turn away for a moment as the melodrama unfolds.

And if you're new to the game, you will find the story fascinating, how Hogan, from a dirt-poor background, turned to golf as his ticket out of poverty and loneliness; how Palmer, with his grip-it-and-rip-it machismo, finally found the begrudging approval of his groundskeeper father; how Nicklaus, from an affluent Ohio family, melted those extra pounds and the hearts of the cynics with his brilliant shot-making.

Hogan's story is saddest. His father was a Texas blacksmith at a time when automobiles were churning off the assembly lines. Broke, emotionally battered, he committed suicide when Ben was 9 years old.

Hogan lugged clubs for 65 cents a round, got lucky when a club member encouraged him, mentored him. Hit shots off the practice tee until blood soaked his hands, laboring to cure a wicked hook.

Tried the tour, failed. Tried it again with his wife Valerie and their last $1,400. Down to 86 bucks when someone swiped the tires off their car. Hogan hitched a ride to the Oakland course, finished in the money, got a check for $385.

"Biggest check I'd ever seen," Hogan recalled in a revealing 1985 interview. The rest is history. A history that includes competing against guys like Byron Nelson and Sam Snead and Porky Oliver for skimpy prize money. A history that includes that head-on crash with a Greyhound bus one foggy night that left him with a double fracture of the pelvis, a broken ankle, a broken collarbone, a smashed rib and a blood clot.

Returned to win the Open at Merion, his cramping legs swathed in Ace bandages. There's that famous photo of Hogan's followthrough with a 1-iron, the rough clogged with spectators. Author Dan Jenkins called it "the greatest comeback in the history of sports."

Back in those days they played the final 36 holes on Saturday, making it a test of stamina and skill. Now, the Open ends on Father's Day, and the documentary plucks those strings like Heifetz.

Deacon Palmer was Arnie's strict, volatile father. The son rebelled one day, got thrown into a wall, smashing a stovepipe in the process. Ran away, slithered home when it got dark.

Turned to golf, developed his flair after watching Babe Didrikson play an exhibition in Latrobe. She wiggled on the first tee, said she had to loosen her girdle, and then whacked the ball down the fairway. Palmer would hitch his pants, flick away the cigarette, whack it as hard as he could and most of America loved him.

Not Hogan. They played a practice round at Augusta and Palmer overheard Hogan sneer, "How did Palmer get into the Masters?"

Palmer recalled his father saying, "There's no reason you can't be good and be nice."

Nicklaus was a country-club kid. Went off to Ohio State and gained 50 pounds his freshman year, majoring in partying and beer guzzling. Won the U.S. Amateur, beating Charlie Coe on the last hole. Made the Walker Cup team and thought maybe there was a future in golf.

He was 20 when they paired him with the legendary Hogan for those final two rounds at Cherry Hills. Palmer was seven shots back of an unraveling Mike Souchak after the morning round.

Jenkins recalls Palmer wondering aloud if a 65 and a 280 finish would be enough to win. Bob Drum, the Pittsburgh golf writer, dismissed Palmer with some derisive comment about him probably shooting seven birdies and seven bogeys.

Palmer bolted from his lunch. Drove the first hole (364 yards) and birdied it. Chipped in for a birdie on 2. Birdied 3. Drum turned to Jenkins and said, "Care to join me on the golf course?"

Palmer birdied six of the first seven holes, finished the front nine in 30.

Nicklaus took the lead on the 12th hole and then squandered it with mistakes spawned by inexperience.

Hogan figured on finishing birdie-par. And then hit a wedge for his third shot on the par-5 17th. It landed on the slope of the green and then trickled back, back, back into the creek.

Twenty-five years later, Hogan confessed, "I wake up at night thinking about that shot . . . not a month goes by that that shot doesn't cut my guts out."

Palmer shot his 65, won the Open, his only Open. Dan Jenkins gets the last word. "On that afternoon," he says, "in the span of just 18 holes, we witnessed the arrival of Nicklaus, the coronation of Palmer and the end of Hogan." *

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