Venturi's life-changing '64 U.S. Open victory
Matt Venturi remembers his father’s promise. He was 7 years old, and before he headed for sleep-away camp, he pleaded with his father to build a swimming pool in the backyard of their California ranch house in suburban San Francisco. Ken Venturi told his son he’d build one as soon as he won the U.S. Open.
Ken Venturi: 1964 U.S. Open
Ken Venturi's signature victory at the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional.
“After his victory, I said, ‘Dad, do I still get the pool?’ ” Matt said.
Construction soon commenced, and Venturi added a special touch, tiling the pool’s steps with the words “1964 U.S. Open.” When Venturi won the Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., he was nearly broke, his first marriage was collapsing and he had been written off as finished. On a day when temperatures soared above 100, Venturi survived a 36-hole pressure-cooker and limped home the champion of the tournament he dreamed of winning all his life. It was his finest hour as a golfer.
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Today, Venturi is one of the game’s elder statesmen. For nearly a decade since retiring from CBS, Venturi has been out of the public eye. He turned 80 on May 15. Approximately 100 friends and family celebrated the occasion at a party at Morningside Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., for a man who has led one of golf’s most fascinating lives: tutored by Byron Nelson (godfather to Matt), a regular golf companion of Ben Hogan’s and the man whom Gene Sarazen asked to deliver his eulogy.
Venturi won 14 times before injuries ended his playing career. To a younger generation, Venturi is better remembered as the CBS analyst who sympathized with Greg Norman’s collapse at the 1996 Masters and delivered an endless array of “Strokesaver” lessons.
Growing up in San Francisco, Venturi was an amateur sensation with a swing to die for and an ego to match his talent. When he bragged of winning a junior tournament, his father shot back, “When you’re as
good as you are, you can tell everybody. When you’re really good, son, they’ll tell you.”
Labeled the next “Can’t-Miss Kid,” Venturi suffered three heartbreaking losses at the Masters, in 1956, ’58 and ’60. Then, injuries sustained in a car accident in 1961 started a three-year slide, which had him on the brink of giving up.
In 1963, Venturi’s official winnings totaled $3,848. A major sponsor dropped him. The biggest indignity: He wasn’t invited to the 1964 Masters. Venturi might have quit, if not for his father’s tough love: “Son, that’s the easiest thing in the world to do. Anybody can give up. It takes no talent.”
That message and a lecture from a San Francisco bartender who told Venturi he was wasting his talent, got him off his barstool. The bartender poured Venturi one last double of Jack Daniels, at which point Venturi promised to quit drinking until he won again. He never stepped foot in that bar again; instead, he drove to California Golf Club, where he began staging an improbable comeback.
On Wednesday night, the eve of the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional, Venturi stopped at a nearby Catholic church. It was locked, but a priest opened the door for Venturi and he prayed. He received additional inspiration in the form of a six-page letter from the Rev. Francis Murray, then an assistant pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Church in the Marina district of San Francisco.
“If you would win the U.S. Open, you would prove to millions of people that they can be victorious over doubt, struggle and temptation to despair,” Murray wrote. “I truly think you are ready. . . . You are truly the new Ken Venturi, born out of suffering and turmoil but now wise and mature and battle-toughened.”
Venturi’s solid play the first two rounds was overshadowed by the brilliance of Tommy Jacobs, who shot a second-round 64 and led Arnold Palmer by one, with Venturi six back. The 1964 Open marked the last time the final 36 holes were played on Saturday. Venturi entered the picture by shooting 5-under 30 on the front nine of his third round.
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“It was the greatest nine holes I ever played in my life,” Venturi said.
His hot play mirrored the heat index. The temperature climbed above 100 degrees, and the humidity neared 100 percent.
“It felt like a blow torch was aimed at your neck,” recalled Raymond Floyd, Venturi’s 21-year-old playing companion.
Feeling woozy from heat exhaustion, Venturi missed short par putts on the final two holes and shot 66. Between rounds, Dr. John Everett, a club member, took Venturi’s pulse and advised him not to play that afternoon. Told that playing could be fatal, Venturi responded, “It’s better than the way I’ve been living.”
The second 18 proved to be a test of stamina as much as ability. Venturi swallowed 18 salt tablets to ward off heat exhaustion. Everett carried a thermos of iced tea and placed wet towels around Venturi’s neck. A marshal shielded Venturi from the sun with an umbrella. U.S. Golf Association executive director Joe Dey walked stride for stride with a weary, heat-sapped Venturi, who lost eight pounds that day. After his tee shot on the 72nd hole landed in the fairway, Venturi asked a friend how he stood. He answered, “All you gotta do is stay on your feet. You’re four strokes ahead.”
But that was no easy task. “Hold your head up, Ken,” said Dey, as recounted by Venturi. “You’re a champion now.”
When his final putt fell, Venturi dropped his putter, raised his arms, removed his trademark white linen cap, and said, “My God, I’ve won the U.S. Open.”
Venturi had survived, but he lacked the strength to pick his ball from the hole. A teary-eyed Floyd grabbed it for him. Venturi shot 66-70 and a total of 278, the second-lowest aggregate score in U.S. Open history at the time.
That night, Venturi drank a glass of champagne.
Venturi’s playing career was cut short soon thereafter when he was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists. The surgery was risky, he explained to his father. “The doctor told me I may lose three fingers,” Venturi said. “My father said to me, ‘It doesn’t make any difference if you ever play golf again.’ ”
Venturi asked, “How can you say that?”
“Because you were the best I ever saw,” father told son.
At last, Venturi had received the parental approval he so deeply desired.
In June 1965, after missing the cut by 11 shots in his U.S. Open defense, Venturi underwent surgery on both hands.
“I asked the doctor if I would be able to play golf again and he said, ‘Yes, but never to your standards,’ ” Venturi recalled.
Seven months later, Venturi won his final Tour event, the 1966 Lucky International, played at Harding Park, the public course in San Francisco where he learned the game and where his father worked in the pro shop.
Venturi credits his U.S. Open victory with landing him the lead analyst job at CBS Sports in 1968. Venturi overcame a childhood stammer to broadcast the game for 35 years. He chose the Tour’s Washington-area stop, the Kemper Open, to bid farewell.
“It’s a city that has been very good to me,” Venturi said.
And a city to which Venturi will return for next week’s U.S. Open. He has been asked to present the winner’s trophy to the new champion at Congressional. After what Venturi endured in 1964, this assignment figures to be no sweat.
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