The Legend of Ken Venturi

Bethesda Magazine/May-June 2011

 

 

 

The Longest Day — In 1964, Ken Venturi became the last man to win the U.S. Open by playing two rounds of golf in a single day at Congressional Country Club. And he did so even as a doctor told him playing could prove fatal.

 

 

BY KATHY CHENAULT

The heat was searing in its intensity and sauna-like in its effect. The temperature soared past 100 degrees, with the humidity near 100 percent on that June day in 1964, the final day of the U.S. Open at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club.

For Ken Venturi, staggering to play through heat prostration despite grave warnings from a doctor, the drive to win was intertwined with the fight to survive. “I couldn’t stop,” recalls Venturi, 79, from his home in Palm Springs, Calif. “I was making a comeback. I had to keep playing.”

Venturi had been a top American golfer in the 1950s, but he had lost his competitive edge by 1964. When he began those final 36 holes at Congressional, he was trailing Tommy Jacobs by six strokes and Arnold Palmer by five. But by late in the final round, he’d taken the lead. He knew he could blow it and become just another hard-luck guy who fell short of his defining moment at the U.S. Open. Or, he could overcome the elements and display the kind of courage that would immortalize him at a tournament known for high-pressure showdowns. Nearly a half-century later, spectators who were there that Saturday still talk about Venturi’s ordeal. And when Congressional hosts its third U.S. Open June 16-19, it will honor the golfer some credit with changing the very nature of the tournament.

Venturi would be the last golfer to win the title after facing the endurance challenge of a 36-hole final day. The following year, the United States Golf Association would extend the tournament from three days to four, with 18 holes played each day.

Venturi says change was inevitable, given the extra money that would come from televising the final round on Sunday. But the physical peril he endured that day, when he became so weak he collapsed to his knees, no doubt hastened that decision.

Even before the Open, Venturi had been struggling on and off the course. The onetime brash phenom from San Francisco had fallen into a maelstrom of marital discord, financial difficulties and a long slump that had him questioning whether he belonged on the tour anymore.

He’d once performed golf wizardry with ease, boldly taking on legends of the sport such as Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan and holding his own even as an amateur. After he turned professional, his popularity soared. He socialized with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and other golf-loving celebrities. By 1960, other pros described him as the man to beat at any tournament. Then his game inexplicably fell apart.

Venturi was working hard to break out of his slump, but was finding only frustration, self-doubt and failure—a destructive combination for any golfer. Without the large purses or hefty sponsorship deals of today to see him through lean times, he contemplated leaving the game to go sell cars. He was drinking too much. He and his first wife, Conni, were struggling to save their marriage. Venturi wasn’t just losing; he had lost his way.

His troubles deepened after a car accident in 1961. Although his injuries weren’t life-threatening, he suffered muscle damage and had to rebuild his swing.

By the ’64 Open, sports writers and fans were calling Venturi a has-been. He’d come close to winning a major championship as an amateur at the 1956 Masters. But windy conditions at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia were his undoing, and he faded to second place after holding a four-stroke lead going into the final round.

He’d had another near-miss at the 1960 Masters, this time playing as a professional. The gallery, sensing a victory, had cheered Venturi when he finished his final round with a one-shot lead over Arnold Palmer, who was still on the course. Palmer needed two birdies to beat him—a mammoth task at Augusta. As Venturi waited nervously in the clubhouse, he found himself unable to watch the TV. Then Palmer sank a 52-foot putt on the 17th hole and rolled in a downhill 8-footer on 18 to claim the title by one stroke.

When he heard the roar from the 18th green, Venturi knew he had lost a final-round lead in a major once again. Without a major title, he was stuck in the void that divides the great golfers from the nearly greats.

Going into the ’64 U.S. Open, Venturi had done everything he could to prepare. “My swing had deteriorated because of the muscle injury,” he says. “When I finally decided at the end of ’63 that I was going to work through it, I started really working hard. It was nothing for me to hit golf balls for seven or eight hours a day.”

Because his tour ranking had fallen during the extended downward slide, he’d had to work his way up through qualifying tournaments to get to the Open. At 33, Venturi was desperate to be more than an also-ran.

During practice rounds before the tournament at Congressional, it was clear the heat would be oppressive. “It was so hot, I only played nine holes on Tuesday and nine on Wednesday,” Venturi says.

Still, he put the heat out of his mind once official play began on Thursday. That was a huge mistake.

“Coming from San Francisco, I just didn’t think about the heat,” he says. He was accustomed to cooling breezes from the Pacific. In Bethesda, he encountered broiling temperatures that by some accounts rose as high as 108 degrees on June 20, the final day. He blocked out his discomfort. He concentrated on doing what was necessary to win: keep his swing grooved and his putting sharp. Meanwhile, “I guess I forgot to drink water,” Venturi admits.

That year, the final two rounds of the Open were played on Saturday, a 36-hole pressure-cooker in the best of conditions, and one reason older players couldn’t hang on to contend down the stretch for the coveted championship. “You just had to grind it out for 36 holes,” Venturi says. The British Open also played a 36-hole final day at that time. Both the Masters and the PGA Championship, which along with the British Open and the U.S. Open make up the four golf majors, were spread over four days, with 18 holes played each day.

Ben Brundred III of Laurel, co-chairman of this year’s U.S. Open at Congressional, tagged alongside his father at the 1964 event. For a 12-year-old fan, it was magical seeing Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. “But the memory that stands out the most,” Brundred says, “is how hot it was. There had been thundershowers at various times. It wasn’t like it is now, when they clear the course if weather threatens. Then, you just ran for shelter anywhere you could find it. After the bad weather cleared, you came back out and play resumed. It was so hot that day, steam was rising from the ground. It was an amazing sight.”

Venturi was an amazing sight that day, too, at least in the beginning. Down by six strokes, he scorched the first nine, making the turn at 30—five under par. The temperature kept climbing. Venturi ignored it. He birdied 12 to go to six under for the round. It got warmer. Venturi focused only on playing, forgetting to drink anything, just shaping his shots and moving on through the back nine.

Then it caught up to him on the 17th hole. Suffering heat exhaustion by now, his legs wobbly, his vision blurred, he missed an 18-inch putt and settled for a bogey. On 18, he fired his only errant tee shot of the round. He was two strokes out of the lead.

Venturi was in trouble, and not only with his game. After holing his putt, Venturi dropped to his knees. First-aid workers rushed to him. Then Dr. John Everett, a club member and physician at the scene, took over. The golfer was trundled into a station wagon, driven to the clubhouse, taken into the locker room and iced down.

Frank Murphy III remembers the moment vividly. He was 23 and just out of the military when his father, a Congressional member and chairman of the 1964 Open, put him to work helping out. “I was there, in the locker room with my dad,” says Murphy, 69, who now lives in McLean, Va. “All these people were working over him. The big question was whether he should keep playing.”

Everett advised against it. “He told me it could be fatal,” Venturi says. The golfer’s response: “Whatever happens, it’s better than the way I’ve been living.”

Granted special permission from the USGA to have a doctor accompany him for the afternoon round—the final 18 holes of the tournament—Venturi left with an entourage that included Everett, two golf officials, someone carrying iced tea, and a uniformed police officer, according to The Washington Post. The group took a walkie-talkie, presumably in case Venturi collapsed somewhere along the 7,073-yard course.

“Venturi’s gait was slow, and so was his swing, principally because he was so weak and tired that he couldn’t possibly have overswung,” the Post reported. “In any event, his golf continued to be in the image of Byron Nelson, ace of the pros years ago and Venturi’s early tutor.”

Between shots, Venturi was given sopping towels from a bucket of ice water. The towels were wrung out and draped over his head or wrapped around his neck. Someone held an umbrella over his head as he walked, shielding him from the sun. Everett fed him salt tablets—18 in all—and made sure he took in fluids. Venturi doesn’t remember the details. “I didn’t even know they were around,” he says of those who accompanied him. “I went back to concentrating on what I had to do.”

Jacobs and Palmer faltered; Venturi, playing slowly but steadily, caught and passed them on the ninth hole, then moved to a four-shot lead by the 18th.

His memory of that round is hazy, but he remembers the most important part: the final steps to victory. “On the 72nd hole, it was tremendous applause,” he says.

The official ’64 program describes that final hole as “one of the most spectacular and testing finishing holes in championship golf. Drive has to be threaded through an avenue of pine trees to descending fairway. Pear-shaped green juts dramatically out at an angle into a lake below the clubhouse. A trap short right, and a fringe of rough in front, dictate a bold second shot.”

Venturi’s tee shot on 18 split the fairway. His second shot landed in the greenside bunker. “I hit an iron to run up on the green,” Venturi says. “Instead of pulling left, the ball jumped right and went into the bunker. It shouldn’t have, but it did.”

With a four-shot lead, there was no reason to panic. He took his sand wedge from caddie William Ward and hit the ball out of the bunker to about 10 feet from the hole. He one-putted to finish at 278 for the tournament, the second best total in Open history at that time.

“I turned around, dropped my putter and said, ‘My God, I’ve won the Open,’” Venturi says.

When it came time to exchange scorecards with his playing partner, Venturi gave Raymond Floyd a blank card. He’d been too weak to keep track, but a scorekeeper in Venturi’s entourage had recorded Floyd’s shots. The numbers were scrawled into the blanks and double-checked, averting the disqualification that signing an incorrect card would require.

At the post-tournament news conference, Venturi showed he could laugh at the struggles that preceded his big win. Referring to names used to describe the fans who followed Palmer and Nicklaus when they played, Venturi said: “I told them there was Arnie’s army and Nicklaus’ navy, and I had Venturi’s vultures.”

The Washington Post reported the next day that Venturi was among 398 people, including volunteers and spectators, who received first aid for heat-related problems at the Open that week. The USGA changed the format of the Open the next year, doing away with the 36-hole marathon on Saturday. Instead, golfers would play four rounds of 18 holes spread over four days, with another 18-hole playoff on Monday if regulation play ended in a tie. Never again would a golfer have to face a 36-hole endurance test on the final day to win the Open, as Venturi did.

Within months of his win, severe circulatory problems made it difficult for Venturi to grip a club. Diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome that required surgery, Venturi delayed the operation until after the 1965 Open at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis. He says nothing could have kept him away. He played the first two rounds, but was among those failing to qualify for the final two rounds on Saturday and Sunday. He flew to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and underwent surgery three days later.

Despite the surgery, hand problems eventually forced him to retire from play. He went on to a 35-year career as a CBS golf analyst, another major achievement for a man who started playing golf as a young boy because he stuttered and found respite in the solitude of the game.

Venturi will return to Congressional for the 2011 Open this June. He is donating the irons he used to win in ’64, along with his scorecards and his trophy. The club plans to display them in its downstairs library after a dedication ceremony. He will stay as a special guest in one of the suites upstairs in the stately Mediterranean-style clubhouse set back from River Road.

And if it’s 100 degrees this year, with high humidity? “I really won’t care,” Venturi says. “I’ll be in the clubhouse.”

 

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