The 1964 U.S. Open: Victory in the Heat of Battle
By Shirley Povich
This was 33 years ago, and in the baking heat that climbed to around 100 degrees the unthinkable was happening maybe on the links of the Congressional Country Club.
A sick man, playing the last rounds under a doctor's care by special permission of the United States Golf Association and wracked by the tortures of heat exhaustion and dehydration, was struggling to hold his lead in the U.S. Open and confronted with the longest course ever selected in the 69 years of Open play.
Ken Venturi was playing with an entourage: one accompanying doctor who was administering salt tablets and ice packs; a marshal with an umbrella to shield him from more of the sun's heat; another marshal equipped with a first-aid walkie-talkie; the executive director of the USGA; a police officer in uniform; and his playing partner, a kid named Ray Floyd.
Venturi had given startling evidence of his deteriorating health on the last two holes of the morning 18. A magnificent putter all morning with his smart round of 66 that included a 30 on the first nine, he nevertheless blew an 18-inch putt on No. 17 and a 30-incher on No. 18.
So the round went from miraculous to merely magnificent. The field averaged more than 75 strokes; Venturi had 66, with those two missed easy putts he would have had a 64. Among the rest, only Billy Casper, with a 69, could manage better than 70.
On the No. 17 tee, Floyd would later testify that the haggard and unsteady Venturi had told him, "I don't think I'll make it, Ray."
"I didn't want to agree with him," Floyd said. And old friend Jay Hebert, who also visited Venturi as he drove off on No. 17, said, "I stood there and worried that he was about to fall."
But now there would be another 18 to play because the USGA, witless copycat of everything British, for years had ordered a 36-hole finish on the last day. (This experience would result in ending that nonsense.)
In the locker room between rounds Dr. John E. Everett, a Congressional member, counseled Venturi to quit, saying, "to continue might be fatal." But he agreed to accompany Venturi if provided with salt tablets and ice packs. Between rounds, Everett advised rest as a priority over lunch for Venturi, who ate nothing. The USGA granted Venturi a 30-minute extension before the final 18.
"You know, dehydration can be fatal," Everett told him.
"I'm already dying," Venturi responded. "I have no place else to go."
Venturi stretched himself prone on the first tee of the final round to catch an extra few minutes of rest. On the 13th hole he asked the USGA official if he could, because of his condition, avoid the two-stroke penalty usually meted out for slow play, and reprieve was granted.
Starting that final 18, Venturi was two strokes off the lead and being asked to beat a golfer, Tommy Jacobs, who had just set an Open record of 206 for 54 holes, bettering Ben Hogan's 207 set in 1948. Could this wavering, enfeebled man bring that off? Could he survive the day? Yes. Yes.
The upshot would be that Venturi would win that Open by four strokes with an astonishing last-round 70 while second-place finisher Jacobs ballooned to 76.
Venturi had come from six back of Jacobs and five behind Arnie Palmer at the halfway mark.
By the 63rd hole, Venturi plodding slowly down each fairway had caught and passed them both. Despite his condition, Venturi was not playing it cagily. Twice he boldly exploded out of bunkers, "when the best thing would have been to chip out and avoid the ponds," he recalled. "But the wedges settled nicely on the greens."
The last bunker shot left him a 10-foot putt on No. 18, and when it went in Venturi's eyes widened, and he flung his arms high in the air. "My God, I've won the Open," he could be heard to exclaim.
Venturi, a religious man, considered himself close to the Deity and had arranged with a priest to say his prayers at a local Catholic church the night before the final rounds. He later explained, "I was asking God to help me believe in myself."
His triumph at Congressional netted Venturi a $17,500 check, a reflection of those times. This year, the same amount could be won by finishing in a tie for 35th place at The Masters.
That Venturi would even be a figure in the 1964 U.S. Open would have commanded the longest of odds. He had not won a tournament in four years. He was less than mediocre on the PGA Tour, reduced to asking old friends for sponsor exemptions so he could compete for some of the needed purse money. He dropped from No. 14 on the money list in 1961 to 94th in 1963, winning a $3,800 pittance that year.
The handsome 32-year-old out of San Francisco, where his father was a pro at a driving range, had once caused Jimmy Demaret to tab him "the sweetest swinger among the amateurs."
So sweet, in fact, that Venturi would make a big threat in 1956 to win The Masters as an amateur only to waste his lead in the last round when he stumbled to a miserable 80 and lost by a stroke to Jackie Burke Jr.
He won money consistently on the tour, but he was plagued by injuries to his back and wrist and his game went so sour that he even talked about giving up golf nine months before the Open at Congressional, said his then-wife, Conni. He had not been invited to play in The Masters in 1964 and was considering himself an outcast, unwanted on the tour as evidenced by his failure to get an invitation to play in the $100,000 Thunderbird tournament a month before the Open. That was because he did not finish in the top 50 at the Indianapolis Speedway tournament.
In desperation, Venturi telephoned Bill Jennings, the Thunderbird tournament director, pleading, "Hey, Bill, can you let me in?" Happily, Jennings had one of five sponsor invitations left and was touched, saying, "Come on up, Ken." Venturi virtually galloped to the Westchester Country Club in Harrison, N.Y., and won a $6,400 check by finishing third, a four-year high, and evidence that his game had perhaps come back.
But he still had to qualify for the Open, like so many other also-rans and rabbits. Neither had he been invited to the PGA Championship after the Open (same thing: he didn't belong). But that was taken care of when Venturi got his nose-thumbing revenge.
For most of his career Venturi was haunted by his collapse that cheated him of a victory in the '56 Masters, and then two more losses there as a pro.
But then came 1964 and, out of nowhere, Venturi. There he was, standing on the 18th green at Congressional, nearly too delirious to embrace his own accomplishment, too weak even to bend down and take the winning ball from the cup. All that work was done by his partner. Floyd reached down and lifted the ball out, and when he looked up to give it to Venturi, the young man was weeping.
It was not the tightest finish in the U.S. Open that Venturi won, but unequaled was the drama of it. And even as Patrick Henry was not the first to declaim, "Give me liberty or give me death," he was remembered for it because he said it best. And by the same lights, Ken Venturi had given golf one to remember, an epic.