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Robert Lloyd reviews 'Back Nine at Cherry Hills: The Legends of the 1960 U.S. Open'

June 11, 2008 | 10:18 am

The best sports documentaries grab the lapels of we who ordinarily do not give athletics a second thought. “Back Nine at Cherry Hills: The Legends of the 1960 U.S. Open” (HBO, tonight at 10) tells a story that requires only the merest grasp of the rules of golf (hit ball in hole); its drama is all in the human striving, in the understanding or overcoming of one's self to better one's game.

The film commemorates the remarkable meeting of three generations of golf greats: Ben Hogan, 47, the game's dour graying eminence, who a decade earlier fought back from a near-fatal car crash to grace the cover of Time and inspire a Hollywood biopic; Arnold Palmer (born 1929), the friendly face of what had become the people's game; and 20-year-old Jack Nicklaus, a rookie phenom not yet in full command of his powers. (In “Star Wars” terms, the Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Han Solo and the Luke Skywalker.) Each went into the last nine holes of the 1960 Open within striking distance of the title.

It is also a story of fathers and sons. Hogan's was a manic-depressive blacksmith who shot himself when Hogan was a child; Palmer's an emotionally reticent country club groundskeeper who made Arnold understand that they were not themselves country club folk. Nicklaus, who was country club folk, was by contrast his kibitzing daddy's pride and joy –- distance was what he needed.

In terms of suspense, it of course helps not to know who won. (Many will, I didn't –- though I rooted sentimentally for Hogan.) The filmmakers happily let the game play out.

Coverage of this year's U.S. Open begins tomorrow at 10 a.m. on ESPN and at noon on NBC; the tournament runs through Sunday at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego -– winner yet unknown.

-- Robert Lloyd