The US Open returns to Congressional Country Club this week. Ken Venturi will be on hand to present the trophy to the champion and reminisce about his miraculous victory there in the 1964 Open.
"Everyone says it’s been a long time," Venturi, who turned 80 on May 15, told Larry Bohannan of The Desert Sun. "But I recall quite a bit of it now."
That in itself is amazing, because Venturi spent the final 36 holes of the Open battling heat exhaustion induced by the 105-degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity that suffocated Congressional that week.
Venturi gained notice in the mid-’50s when the San Franciscan was identified by Jimmy Demaret as "the sweetest swinger among the amateurs." He almost won the ’56 Masters as an amateur. A final round 80 caused him to lose by a single stroke to Jack Burke, Jr. That remained the standard for Masters collapses until Greg Norman stumbled along 40 years later.
"I went five years where I was favorite or co-favorite of every tournament I played," Venturi told Bohannan. But Venturi’s last win came in 1960. His earnings had tumbled from a high of $41,230 in 1960 to $3,848 in 1963. He even wondered whether he should continue to play golf or seek another profession.
When the ’64 Masters rolled around, Venturi wasn’t in the field for the first time in nine years. Venturi spent the week in self-improvement. "That might have been the longest, hardest practice week I’ve ever had," he told Ron Kroichick of the San Francisco Chronicle. "I never watched one single shot of the Masters."
His confidence received a boost from a third place finish in the Thunderbird tournament at Westchester a month before the Open. Venturi had to talk his way into the field on a sponsor’s exemption.
He still had to make it through Open qualifying, but his rebuilt game was up to the task. But the longest course in Open history favored big hitters like Masters champion Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tony Lema.
On Friday, Tommy Jacobs shot a stunning 64 to grab the halfway lead, with Palmer a stroke behind. Venturi trailed by six.
Back in those dark ages, the USGA required the final 36 holes be played on Saturday, to offer a truly demanding test. The conditions at Congressional pushed the needle from demanding to ludicrous. Mercifully, it became the last year of the 36-hole final day.
Venturi began his morning round with a sparkling 30 on the front nine. He missed short putts on the final two holes, but still shot 66 while the field averaged 75. Billy Casper, at 69, was the only other golfer under 70 in the third round.
But Venturi was wilting in the heat. On the 17th tee, he told his playing partner, Raymond Floyd, "I don’t think I can make it, Ray."
"I suppose I’ve played in hotter conditions, but not very often," Al Geiberger told Bohannan. "You could look down … and see the humidity coming out of the ground. Years later, whenever we ran into a hot day, we’d talk about Congressional that week."
Between rounds, Dr. John Everett advised Venturi not to continue. "The doctor told me before we went back out for the fourth round not to play, that it might be fatal," Venturi told Bohannan.
"I said, ‘Doc, I’m already dying. I have no place else to go.’"
With that, off he went, trailing Jacobs by two shots. He had an entourage escorting him: Dr. Everett supplying ice packs and salt tablets, two marshals providing umbrellas for shade, and Joseph C. Dey, Jr. of the USGA.
Venturi kept making pars, and that was good enough. Jacobs was fading. By the 10th hole, Venturi had the lead. He staggered down the fairways, but once over the ball, delivered that sweet swing and crisp shots.
At long last, Venturi found himself on the 18th green. "I looked across the lake [at the scoreboard] and I was two-under and the only one in red numbers," Venturi told Bohannan. "So, I knew if I made the putt, I was the winner."
The putt dropped. Venturi dropped his putter, and exclaimed, "Oh, my God, I’ve won the Open!"
He couldn’t even bend over to retrieve his ball from the cup. Floyd did the honors, and when he handed Venturi the ball, tears were running down Raymond’s cheeks.
There remained one bit of unfinished business. Venturi still had to sign his scorecard, and for the life of him, he couldn’t recall every shot. Finally, Dey gave him a pat on the shoulder. "It’s correct. It’s okay to sign it."
"I’ve seen people over the years who not only tell me I won the Open, they tell me where I won it, what I shot, and exactly what I did," Venturi told Kroichick. "There aren’t many Opens where everyone can tell you all about it."