In 1937, deep in the Great Depression, not every first-rate golf or country club was bent on hosting a U.S. Open. But suburban Denver’s ambitious Cherry Hills Country Club—all of 15 years old—was an eager volunteer. So Will Nicholson, a member of Cherry Hills and of the USGA Executive Committee, extended an invitation for the ’38 Open. The answer was yes, but with a string attached: Cherry Hills would have to guarantee the USGA $10,000.
“But there’s never been a guarantee before,” said Nicholson.
“The Open has never been held west of the Mississippi before,” countered a fellow USGA member.
“Ten thousand dollars?” roared Nicholson. “Hell, we don’t have enough in our treasury to buy a case of ketchup!”
When the USGA stuck to its demand, Nicholson grudgingly acquiesced.
Defending champion Ralph Guldahl won, the USGA got its $10,000, the city of Denver gained valuable national exposure and the club netted a badly needed $23,000, plus widespread acknowledgement of its outstanding golf course.
Cherry Hills was organized in 1922. Most of its founders also belonged to Denver Country Club. In fact, it was there that key members of the fledgling club met with Philadelphia-based golf course architect William S. Flynn, whose reputation-making designs (Shinnecock Hills, the Cascades Course at the Homestead, Philadelphia Country Club’s Spring Mill 18) still lay in the future. During this luncheon the group learned, as club records tells us, that Flynn had “gone over the ground and … sketched out a links to fit the south part of the plot.”
Given the mileage between Philadelphia and Denver, it seems possible this was Flynn’s only visit to the site. One theory suggests that the construction crew, directed by a very able foreman, came to Cherry Hills after completing one or two Tillinghast courses—possibly Baltusrol’s Lower and Upper; or Brook Hollow, in Dallas. If this was the case, these workers would have applied at Cherry Hills the solid know-how acquired in the building of worthy golf holes elsewhere.
In any event, using a light, fine pen, Flynn had painstakingly sketched the 18 holes, each on a separate piece of graph paper. So precisely does Flynn point the way, and in such minute detail, that there can be little question of his intentions, general and specific, for each hole. The club has framed these 18 sketches and today they hang in the men’s card room, where we marvel at their kinship to the holes still in play 80 years later.
From the back tees, the course measures 7,160 yards, which equates to about 6,700 yards at sea level. Par is 72. As at Tulsa’s Southern Hills, the high ground is occupied by the rambling and graceful clubhouse, the first and 10th tees, and the ninth and 18th greens. The body of the course stretches away at the bottom of the hill, over gently rolling terrain, in Flynn’s imaginative yet natural routing.
It was on the 346-yard opening hole during the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open that Arnold Palmer, seven strokes off the pace, launched a titanic tee shot from the hillside down into the tree-framed fairway. The ball bounced through a band of rough and scurried onto the green to stop 20 feet from the hole. He did not make the eagle 2, but his 3 detonated an explosion of five more birdies, on the second, third, fourth, sixth and seventh. Out in 30, Palmer came home in 35 for 65, a total of 280, and victory by two strokes.
Fifteen years later, he and his course design partner, Ed Seay, were retained by the club to toughen up the course for the 1978 Open. They built eight bunkers and, adding 155 yards overall, five new back tees. One of these tees is at the first hole, stretching it from 346 to 404 yards. And one of these bunkers is also at the first, along the left side of the fairway in the landing area. Arnold is reputed to have taken a devilish pleasure in these opening-hole additions which would, he felt, prevent any other player from duplicating his feat. Playing from the markers Arnold used in 1960, there are a couple of members—former Bronco great John Elway being one of them—who will reach the green with their drive on occasion.
Cherry Hills is a parkland course. Much of its beauty and some of its strategy and challenge come courtesy of its trees. The cottonwoods—the specimen behind the ninth green is especially grand—speak of the West, and intermingled with them are oak and willow and honey locust, ash, and pine, silver maple and American elm. There are more than 2,000 trees, but so adroitly positioned are they that we never find ourselves playing tunnel golf.
The first nine is full of strong holes like the 421-yard second (trees right, sand left), where in the 1941 PGA Championship, on the second hole of sudden death and the 38th hole of the match, Byron Nelson three-putted to hand the title to Vic Ghezzi. But it is the second nine that is genuinely adventurous. Backdropping the roller-coaster, 455-yard 10th are the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains. A rippling 577-yarder follows. Now we brace for the last seven holes. Why brace? Because each of them is threatened by water. On the 207-yard 12th, a lagoon fronts the green. On the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th, a stream called Little Dry Creek (don’t you believe it!) insistently gives pause. A moat rings the green complex on the par-5 17th. And at the home hole, a lake has to be crossed from the tee and a finger of it avoided on the second shot.
The 14th is probably the finest hole on the course. A mammoth par-4 of 480 yards, it curves gently left with the second shot dropping to a green imperiled at the left front and along the left side by the ubiquitous Little Dry Creek. Sand lurks at the right for the shot that is kept too safely away from the water. In the final of the 1983 U.S. Mid-Amateur, Jay Sigel birdied this hole to take a 1-up lead over Texan Randy Sonnier. He then halved the remaining four holes to capture the crown. With this victory, Sigel joined two of the game’s immortals, Bob Jones and Chick Evans, as the only players to win two USGA championships in a calendar year.
At the 1985 PGA Championship, Lee Trevino and Hubert Green were tied for the lead Sunday afternoon as they came to the tee on the intimidating 15th—215 yards long, sand at the right of the green, more sand and the creek skirting the left side. Trevino three-putted for a bogey and could not retrieve the dropped stroke as Green went on to win.
The 433-yard 16th is superb, and extraordinarily beautiful. That sinuous stream, spanned here by three arched bridges, first works its way along the right side through the trees, then crosses the softly sloping fairway, finally edging up toward the left side of the green. In the third round of the 1990 U.S. Amateur, Phil Mickelson, 1-down at the time, pulled his tee shot into the right rough. With a tree squarely blocking his path to the green, he started an 8-iron far left and out over the water. Reaching its apex, and as though on command, the ball veered sharply right and floated down to finish eight feet behind the hole. “That shot won me the Amateur,” says Mickelson.
The level, 555-yard 17th has been the decisive hole for more than one contender over the years, but it was Ben Hogan’s failure here on the 71st hole of the 1960 Open that was particularly poignant. The 48-year-old Hawk, tied with Palmer at 4-under, gambled in a try for birdie with the cup down front, close to the water. He watched stoically as his little pitch landed near the top of the bank but spun back into the water. He followed that bogey 6 with a triple-bogey 7 on the 18th.
Low comedy and high drama both come to mind at the 480-yard 18th. On the tee in the second round of the 1960 Open, the tempestuous Tommy Bolt, distracted at the top of his backswing by a fish jumping out of the water, hooked his drive into the lake and then, enraged, hurled his driver in after it.
In 1978, during the last Open at Cherry Hills, Andy North held a two-stroke lead climbing the steep final fairway of the wind-whipped course. After driving into the rough, North laid up 40 yards short of the green with an 8-iron. The flag beckoned from just beyond the pit at the left front of the putting surface. His pitch, victim of an unpredictable gust, fell short into the sand. His deft bunker shot stopped four feet short of the hole. Now the wind was blowing even harder. Twice, fearful that the ball might move as he was addressing it, the tall, lanky North backed away. “The next time I got over it,” he recalls, “the wind absolutely stopped, and it was almost as if someone said, ‘Hey, it’s your time to win, kid, go ahead and knock it in.’ I put it right in the middle of the hole.”
Wind was not the potential villain in the 1993 U.S. Senior Open here as Jack Nicklaus came down the final hole with a one-stroke lead over Tom Weiskopf. But a gathering thunderstorm had the USGA weighing the idea of stopping play. Miraculously, however, the celestial fireworks did not materialize and Nicklaus, playing with understandable urgency, hit a 1-iron over the lake followed by a towering 5-iron to the green at the top of the hill. His 35-foot lag, a slick sidehiller, drifted three feet past the cup. Jack rolled the short putt in for the last of his eight USGA championships.
Going back 64 years, to the “Ketchup Open” chaired by Will Nicholson in 1938, Cherry Hills has staged its fair share of national championships, nine in all. Will the great Flynn layout ever witness another Open or PGA? Given today’s clubs and balls and the light Denver air, not to mention the skill and strength of the big bashers, this may be unlikely. However, important championships are scarcely a thing of the past here. In 2005, the club will, for the first time, host the world’s best women players, when the likes of Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak gather to compete in the U.S. Women’s Open—and to write a new chapter in the colorful history of Cherry Hills Country Club.