This is the fourth in a series of articles about past USGA champions who have won at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., site of the 2011 U.S. Open. Previous pieces were on 1949 U.S. Junior Amateur champion Gay Brewer, 1995 U.S. Senior Open champion Tom Weiskopf and 1997 U.S. Open winner Ernie Els.
His voice sounded gravelly but vibrant, even if he is nearing 80 years old, but on the appointed morning that we were to talk by phone, Ken Venturi also was choking back a palpable sadness. His former boss and mentor and one of his closest friends, legendary CBS Sports producer Frank Chirkinian, had died the previous evening, succumbing to lung cancer.
Venturi, who lives in Palm Springs, Calif., had recently phoned Chirkinian in West Palm Beach, Fla., not knowing just how much the malignancy had done its insidious work. But after a few minutes of conversation, Venturi, who had lost his second wife, Beau, to cancer in 1997, had a sense of his friend’s failing health.
“At the end I told him, 'I can never thank you enough for all you've done for me, Frank.' He was quiet for a moment, and then he simply told me, 'Kenny, I love you.' I told him, 'I love you, too.’ There was really nothing else for us to say,” Venturi said quietly. “Frank Chirkinian really saved my life as it pertains to staying in the game of golf. Without him I don't know what would have happened to me. He gave me another career, kind of a new lease on life. You think he had an impact on my life? You bet he did.”
No one could argue against that, but before he became a household name in golf circles and a legend in his own right as a broadcaster – an astounding feat of determination for a man who retreated into golf’s inherent solitude as a youngster partly to ameliorate the anguish of a pronounced stammer – Venturi was one of America’s finest golfers. But promise left unfulfilled dispenses an ineffable cruelty, and Venturi could not escape the torture of myriad setbacks, particularly his three near misses in the Masters Tournament and, later, the severe carpal tunnel syndrome that eventually ended his competitive career.
But nothing, not even the intervention of Chirkinian in 1968 when he tapped Venturi for a job that would last for 35 years, had a greater impact on the course of Venturi’s life than his inspiring and almost mythic victory in the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Absent his miraculous triumph amid sweltering heat in the last 36-hole final day in the history of the national championship, there likely would not have been a TV career, a new lease on life, or the steady stream of phone calls to his home asking him to recount that suffocating and surreal day nearly 47 years ago.
Though it sounds like hyperbole, the fact is Venturi literally was playing for his life on that afternoon of June 20 when he fought off the withering effects of heat exhaustion and dehydration to win his only major championship on what was then the longest course in U.S. Open history.
“The one thing people always ask is, ‘How did I do it?’ And the first thing I always tell them is that it was like it was meant to be. Like it was my destiny,” Venturi said. “But in a strange way what I went through might have almost helped me, because all I was thinking about was fairway, green, fairway, green, and just getting through the next shot. There were no nerves. Whatever natural talent I had just came out.”
Venturi possessed plenty of talent, not to mention a drive for excellence instilled in him by his father, Fred, whose uncompromising standards, common sense and work ethic had a profound impact on his son. He also was a man of few words, so when he offered advice the message usually stuck. The one Venturi remembers above all others came after he’d won a junior tournament in San Francisco and began to recount how well he had played.
His father simply told him, “You can tell everyone in the world how good you are, but when you’re really good, son, they’ll tell you.”
Venturi, whose mentors were Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, was really good, and as an amateur he led the 1956 Masters after 54 holes. A closing 80 on a cold and windy day allowed Jack Burke Jr. to slip by him. He endured further disappointments at Augusta National Golf Club in 1958 and ’60, the latter when Arnold Palmer birdied the last two holes to beat him by one stroke.
Nevertheless, Venturi built a solid pro career and won 10 times from 1957-60. However, his game went into a tailspin after he sustained injuries in an auto accident in 1961. Then he hurt his back in ’62. As summer approached in ’64, Venturi was nearly broke, had little confidence, and was estranged from his first wife, Conni. He hadn’t even played in the Open for three years, nor was he invited to the ’64 Masters.
He felt like an outcast. He considered quitting and becoming a club pro. The week before Open qualifying, however, he got a break in the form of a sponsor exemption into the tour stop at Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y. Venturi, who’d earned $3,800 in ’63, pocketed $6,400 by coming in third, his best finish since winning the 1960 Milwaukee Open. Buoyed by the result, Venturi survived the qualifier and was in the Open.
But he soon felt like an outsider again.
President Lyndon Johnson hosted a large group of professionals for a lawn party at the White House early in the week. Johnson invited past champions and some of the favorites. Venturi was not on the guest list.
“I played nine holes Monday and Tuesday with Paul Harney, and he had to run after we were finished, and he said, ‘I will see you at the party,’” said Venturi. “I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t let on that it bothered me, but it did. But I turned that around and used it as more motivation. And I knew I was close. I liked my chances.”
Venturi opened with solid rounds of 72-70, but Tommy Jacobs, who earlier in the year had won his fourth tour title at the Palm Springs Golf Classic, fired a second-round 64, tying the championship record, and was six ahead of Venturi. Jacobs would be paired for the final two rounds with Palmer, the 1960 champion, who trailed by one but was the prohibitive favorite after shooting 68-69, the only player in the field with two sub-par scores. Palmer also had won his fourth Masters title that April.
Bill Collins (141) and Charlie Sifford (142) were in the penultimate group followed by Venturi with Ray Floyd, who was playing in his first U.S. Open.
The field ventured out into a cauldron that would reach 108 degrees with humidity in the 90s, but Venturi was equally hot, scoring 3-3-4-3-3-4-3-3-4 for an outward 30 in the morning round. He was five under par as he reached the 17th hole, but he was beginning to feel the effects of dehydration.
Floyd later testified that the wobbling Venturi had told him on the 17th tee, "I don't think I'll make it, Ray.” Added Floyd: “I didn’t want to agree with him. I mean, even I was having trouble, and I was 21 years old.” Jay Hebert, playing in the group just ahead, would later say, after meeting Venturi on the tee at No. 17, “I worried that he was about to fall down."
Which explains how Venturi missed an 18-inch par putt on 17 and a 3-footer for birdie on 18. He looked disoriented. He dropped his putter as he walked off the green, and then struggled to pick it up.
Still, his 66 was magnificent considering the field had averaged more than 75 and only one other player, Billy Casper with 69, had bettered par. Venturi had rallied within two of Jacobs, who carded 70 and was in with a 54-hole total of 206, a record. Palmer, meanwhile, fighting a balky putter, had fallen back with a 75.
“Boy, I was hotter than the day,” said Palmer, thinking about how his second bid to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year got derailed by his putter. “The putting was everything. It just wouldn’t happen. The weather was not a factor for me, but I know it was for a lot of the guys, and we all were aware how much Ken was suffering as the day went on.”
He wasn’t just suffering. He was in real trauma, and there were doubts Venturi could continue – or should continue.
Between rounds Dr. John E. Everett, a Congressional member, visited Venturi in the locker room, and he advised the golfer to quit. “To continue might be fatal,” he said.
"I'm already dying," Venturi responded, alluding to not only his health but also to his flailing career. "I have no place else to go."
After a 50-minute break, Venturi returned to the first tee, this time with an entourage that included a doctor, a marshal who occasionally shielded Venturi from the sun with an umbrella, a police officer and Joseph C. Dey, the executive director of the USGA.
Somehow, he plodded his way along, and by the fifth hole he had caught Jacobs, who had double-bogeyed the par-3 second hole. By the turn, after shooting even par, Venturi had edged in front. The only question seemed to be whether or not he could finish. By the 14thhole, he had slowed his gait so much that he pleaded to Dey, “If you won't slap a two-stroke penalty on me, Joe, I'm going to slow down.”
Even so, he kept pace with par while Jacobs, Palmer and the others melted away. The gallery was five-to-six deep as he trudged down the final fairway to where his approach shot had found a greenside bunker. His explosion shot left him a 10-foot par putt, and after Floyd holed out from roughly the same line, Venturi rammed his final stroke into the throat of the hole. When it went in, Venturi's eyes widened, and he heaved his tired arms in the air. "My God, I've won the Open," he could be heard to exclaim.
Floyd, who closed with a 77, went to the hole and retrieved the ball for Venturi. The young pro’s eyes were red and welling with tears. “I saw what he had gone through,” said Floyd, who went on to win the 1986 U.S. Open. “He looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t think I was going to cry until just now looking at you tearing up.’ How he made it through I’ll never know, but it was an emotional moment. It’s still one of the great performances of all time.”
Venturi, whose astonishing 70 gave him a 278 total, the second-lowest in Open history, and a four-stroke victory over Jacobs, made an equally winning play on the day after. As he was leaving his hotel he received a call from the White House. President Johnson invited the new national champion to lunch. Venturi politely declined, keeping a promise, instead, to a friend of his, Bernard “Toots” Shor, to dine with him that day at his famous restaurant in Manhattan, regardless of the outcome. He was as good as his word.
Venturi went on to win twice more in ‘64, and later that year he won the PGA Player of the Year Award and was named Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year,” a significant achievement considering that it was an Olympic year.
And, so, the words of Venturi’s father had come true. He had become good enough for others to tell him how good he was.
Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA championship sites.