When Ken Venturi (see cover) won the U.S Open golf championship in Washington late last Saturday afternoon, it was as if everyone suddenly wanted to drive an Edsel instead of a Cadillac or as if Dick Nixon were President. It was as if they took all the guys down on Skid Row and put them in charge of the big banks. It was a day for losers everywhere, because, for the best part of three years now, Ken Venturi has been a loser's loser.
Golf players have turned out to be the movie stars of the decade. The idolaters want their autographs, they get the best tables at "21" and the Pump Room, and Ed Sullivan books them like Beatles. That was the way it was for Ken Venturi in the closing years of the Eisenhower Administration—golden years when he was going to be the next Ben Hogan, when there was no matching his confidence or his glamour or his prospects. Then all of a moment he could not hit the golf ball straight anymore. A moment after that he had disappeared.
The crowds chased people with names like Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, and when Ken made one of his infrequent appearances in a tournament he played in quiet oblivion. A man who once won $41,230 in a year, he earned only $3,848 in 1963. He received no invitation to play in the Masters this year, a kind of fierce and final blow because he has long been a great favorite of golf sentimentalists at that tournament. Twice, in 1956 and 1960, he had the Masters won, only to lose it each time in spirit-breaking fashion—once by shooting a last-round 80, and once by having Arnold Palmer sink birdie putts on 17 and 18. Now he was not even able to play there. He had become a nobody lost in the shadows.
On Saturday at Congressional Country Club he stepped into the sun again, and what sun! It was a day of 100° temperatures and salt tablets and dizzy spells and doctors in the steamy caldron that is Washington in June. Heat exhaustion was a constant threat to Venturi, and at times it seemed he would never be able to walk up to where his ball lay. But when he got there, he lashed at his shots with almost furious intent, and there was nobody on the record-long (7,053 yard) Congressional course that day who could match his efforts. By 6:45 p.m. the Palmers et al had shot themselves into nowhere, while a staggering but relentless Ken Venturi posted a 66-70 for the day and a total of 278 to win a fantasy-filled Open.
June 28, 1964
When Venturi's final putt went in, a roar of approval sounded through the natural valley that cradles Congressional's 18th hole, and it came in large measure from a group that only an hour before had been properly known as Arnie's Army—an army now willing to follow another general. "Until the last holes," Venturi said later, "I just had Arnie's outcasts, but those cats out there were solid supporters. The last few years all I've had were Venturi's vultures."
The more he thought about it, the more Venturi's spirits rose following the first solemn and overwhelming emotions of victory. Hustled to the traditional press conference, he looked at the reporters in front of him and cracked: "The last time I saw any of you guys was when you were interviewing me at the 1960 Masters and someone yelled 'Palmer!' and you all ran out of the room and left me there sipping my Coke."
He talked about the 12 salt tablets a doctor had given him on the course during the afternoon round and said, "I think they must have been lead. They all went right to my feet. But I better not say anymore about that. Everybody's endorsing things nowadays, and maybe I can endorse salt tablets."
Then he turned serious again. "If I had to do everything all over again and write a script or a book about it, I wouldn't change one thing that happened to me in my life. Nine months ago I was about to quit, and I didn't know what was going to happen. I've tasted the bitterness of defeat, and now I'm going to taste the sweetness of success."
Bitter is a fair enough word for what Venturi calls "the three long years when I went from the top to the bottom of the barrel." The decline became critical on a February day in Palm Springs in 1962. Ken was playing in the pro-amateur tournament there, and as he leaned over to pick his ball out of the cup he felt something snap in his spine. The pain was very sharp and refused to go away, so he had to withdraw from the tournament. In fact, it was some weeks before he could rejoin the tour. Even then he had to have daily heat treatments and massages to remove the strain and stiffness. His golf swing was restricted, and no doubt he should have rested until he was sound again. But pro golfers like to keep going. It is not just that they need the money to eat. When they are on top, as Venturi was, their status in their profession depends on how much money they win, so they often keep playing when they should be nursing their ailments.
The more he played with his back hurting, the more Venturi had to alter his swing. Pretty soon that swing, one which Byron Nelson had helped to mold into the most classical on the tour, was entirely gone and, at the age of 31, Venturi seemed to be washed up. He had a lot of friends who tried to help and countless others who wished him well. Many a golfing conversation started with: "What has happened to poor Ken?" Poor Ken and his wife Conni, one of the beauties among the golfers' wives, were about the only ones who would not admit he was through. Ken stuck doggedly to the tour in 1962, but throughout much of last year he stayed home in Hillsborough, Calif., a San Francisco suburb, and tried to remake his golf game. Now and then he would feel some confidence and attempt a tournament or two, but it was no go.
Last summer he seriously considered quitting golf and finding a profession elsewhere. He kept practicing, however, and among those he played with was Father Francis Murray, a priest with a parish in Burlingame near Ken's home. Father Murray concentrated on the part of Venturi's game that needed the most work—his state of mind. Slowly he built a more relaxed and philosophical attitude in a mind that had been as jumpy as popcorn in a skillet.
On Wednesday of last week Venturi received a letter from Father Murray, and it meant a great deal to him. "He told me," Venturi said later, "that you have to keep your composure, that you should never let anything great get you too elated and that you should never let anything bad get you down. He said you should just keep an even pace and just ask God to let you do the best you can. Believe me, when I get home I'm going to split the trophy right down the middle and put half in my house and half in Father Murray's parish."
On Thursday morning, play in the 64th U.S. Open began, and a hundred letters from Father Murrays would not have convinced anybody to follow Ken Venturi, even though he had been scoring quite well recently. Because of its length, and the fact that Washington's tropical sun had broiled much of the once-vaunted Open rough down to brown, harmless hay, the only question was which of golf's hardest hitters—Palmer, Nicklaus or Tony Lema—would win. Palmer seemed to settle that at once with a brisk 68 that sent his gallery bellowing across the hills and dissenters muttering that this was going to be another runaway like the recent Masters, where Arnold might as well have played alone.
Then, on Friday, occurred the sort of improbable happening that makes sport sporting. Tommy Jacobs, one of the most likable and least known among the very good younger pros, shot a 64. On another golf course Jacobs' performance could have been accepted with a reasonable amount of awe. To shoot such a round at Congressional must be regarded as superlative, if not unbelievable, golf. "He must have been cheating," Arnold Palmer said jokingly. "Which holes did he leave out?" asked Claude Harmon, who insisted that the course should really be considered a par-73 because most of the players were unable to reach two or three of the par-4 holes with their two best shots. "It was the finest round of golf I have ever seen," said old Dutch Harrison, who was in the same pairing with Tommy and is a voice worth listening to, since he has played in more professional tournaments than any golfer in history.
It was an outrageous thing for Jacobs to do. The only other man to shoot 64 in a U.S. Open was an unemployed pro named Lee Mackey, who did it in 1950 and went into such a trance that he had an 81 the following day. One measure of Jacobs' round is the fact that there were only eight scores below 70 in all four rounds at Congressional. As with the description of all miracles—once you have written that the Red Sea parted, what do you say after that?—the 64 should simply be allowed to stand without further words.
In addition to the stir it caused in its own right, the 64 gave Jacobs the lead in the tournament. One stroke behind was Palmer, who had a 69. Jacobs left the course early, pausing at the clubhouse door for a bewildered, "Who's that?" as Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon drove up behind a police escort. The secretary, presumably, soon knew who Jacobs was.
Lema, meanwhile, was in with a lackluster 71-72, and Jack Nicklaus, at 72-73, was having his problems, too. He could not sink a putt and could hardly get a drink. Pepsi-Cola was the only soft drink sold on the course, and it came in red-white-and-blue Pepsi cups. Nicklaus endorses Coke, so he was having his Pepsis poured into beer cups. "No wonder he can't putt," said one outraged follower. "That's his fourth beer this nine." (Nicklaus eventually was to score only one birdie in the last 54 holes. "That's not my kind of golf," he said. It is the kind that finishes in 23rd place. Lema was to do little better, ending up 20th.)
Finally, by sunset Friday there was a kind of condescending pleasure in noting that Poor Ken was having such a nice tournament, his 72-70 putting him in a tie for fourth, six strokes behind Jacobs.
Saturday's sunrise found USGA officials out on the course placing cups in the hardest imaginable positions. Nobody was going to shoot a 64 in their tournament again. In two hours the temperature was 75°, and 36 holes were about to begin that would decide whether Jacobs or Palmer would be the new Open champion.
The opinion was nearly universal that Palmer would devour Jacobs like an hors d'oeuvre as the two of them played head to head. Speculation began as to whether Arnold would be able to win the British Open three weeks hence and then the PGA on the week after that for the first Grand Slam of pro golf.
Palmer looked, as he always does when he seems on the way to victory, like a man who is late for a big appointment. He was eager, so eager that he hit one shot onto the course before he ever teed off. Practicing in a sand trap, he blasted a wild wedge high into the trees surrounding the first tee, a blow that was viewed as most amusing, though hardly a portent. As play began, his shots, although evading tree branches, were still a little wild, but he was chipping superbly with a wedge on which he had bent some extra loft specially for the Open's long rough, and he needed only one putt on three of the first four greens. It was at the 5th hole that Palmer's first makable putt failed to drop. When the same thing happened on the 6th hole and he took his second straight bogey, a little of the starch seemed to go out of him. Jacobs was holding steady at par, and was three strokes up on Palmer. It was at this moment that the gallery following the two leaders first could see the large scoreboard behind the 7th green, where a row of red (for sub-par) figures was growing opposite Venturi's name.
Venturi had birdied the first and the 4th and the 5th by drilling daring iron shots to the tight pin positions. He was tied with Palmer. Moments later a cheer went up from the gallery surrounding the 8th green indicating another birdie for Venturi, and this same cheer, grown even louder, arose at the 9th green, when he birdied that hole. These were the numbers: 3-3-4-3-3-4-3-3-4—a five-under-par 30 on the first nine holes. "It was the greatest nine holes I ever played in my life," Venturi was to say later. "If I ever played the kind of nine holes that I've dreamed about, this was it. I hit every fairway, I hit every green, and I made every possible putt."
Even so, his day was a long way from over. He had nine more holes to play in his morning round, then a full 18 holes after lunch, for it has been traditional in the U.S. and Britain that the Open champion must prove his stamina as well as his ability by playing two full rounds on the final day.
Perhaps because he had been off the tour for a time, or perhaps simply because he had taken no salt pills, Ken began to have trouble. Conni approached to hand him an iced tea on the 10th tee. "Go back in the clubhouse," he said protectively, and he did not drink the tea. The temperature was now well over 90°—it was measured at 112° by the cup on one green—and by the 14th hole Venturi began to wilt. He had made one more birdie—at the 12th—to stay even with Jacobs, but, as he put it, "I started to shake all over. It wasn't nerves. My whole body was shaking." At the 15th and 16th holes he barely salvaged his pars after some erratic shots. By the time he reached the 17th green he could scarcely hold his putter, and he three-putted there from 25 feet.
At the 18th hole he drove among some trees in the right rough, recovered well and came trudging down the long, sloping fairway to the green in short, weary steps. The enormous gallery lining both sides of the fairway for more than 400 yards applauded every step, and Venturi acknowledged the tribute by removing the white linen cap that has been his trademark ever since he first made his mark in golf as an amateur by almost winning that 1956 Masters. But a couple of minutes later he missed a four-foot putt for his second consecutive bogey. He winced in disappointment, but he still was in with a remarkable 66. The big scoreboard across the pond from the 18th green told him that Jacobs was ahead of him again—by two strokes. Palmer was four behind.
A station wagon drove Venturi and his playing partner, Raymond Floyd, back up the hill to the clubhouse for lunch. Venturi could not eat. His face was ashen, his eyes glazed and he walked to his locker without saying a word to anyone. He sat with his back against the locker and began to shuffle aimlessly through some letters. He asked for some tea, then some lemons and salt tablets—the first salt and liquid he had had since he started the morning's golf. His fellow pros were concerned. Lema came over to congratulate him and watched him closely. Jay Hebert came over and whispered to him. Raymond Floyd went to find Conni. "He's sick," Floyd told her. A doctor was called. Ken still sat, saying nothing. Dr. John Everett, a club member, came in, took his pulse and decided he should lie down in a private room until he was due to go back into the sun for another four hours of pressure golf.
After the 50-minute break, Venturi was back on the first tee ready to play his afternoon round. Dr. Everett was with him now, carrying a container of salt tablets, and a marshal had a plastic thermos of iced tea and some chocolate bars. Towels dipped in ice water were handed Venturi when he asked.
He seemed well revived, and he parred his way easily through the first five holes. By that time he knew he was again tied for the lead, as Jacobs had taken a double-bogey 5 on the short 2nd hole and Palmer continued to lose his personal battle with his own putter.
Playing the dangerous 6th hole carefully clear of the pond that borders the green, Venturi three-putted for a bogey 5, but he got the stroke back with a 10-foot birdie putt at the 9th. Although the weariness showed as he moved from shot to shot, there was nothing frail about the way he struck the ball. Yet this is not at all the same Venturi who had won 10 tournaments in his first three years as a pro. The lovely, graceful swing that had made him the best long-iron player in golf had given way to a flat, quick backswing that got the job done about as well but would excite no lyrical phrases from the purists.
Now, as Venturi started up the long 10th hole, having completed the first nine holes in even par, he still stood two strokes under par for the tournament and had his first clear lead, for Jacobs had suffered another bogey behind him, and no one else was within four strokes. Venturi parred his way as far as the long 13th, a very exacting par-4. He was able to get on with a big drive and a good six-iron that stopped 18 feet from the hole. He looked a long time at the putt, hit it, and when it went in for a birdie he closed his eyes, turned and tilted his face up toward the sun for a silent and memorable moment. He now had a three-stroke lead and was almost home.
Going up the 14th fairway, however, he said to Joseph C. Dey Jr., the USGA official who was refereeing the match: "If you won't slap a two-stroke penalty on me, Joe, I'm going to slow down." And he did, cutting his pace in half, from a slow walk to an eerie, slow-motion march. A well-struck five-iron here rolled back into the deep bunker fronting this green, and he took a bogey 5, his final bogey of the tournament.
Jacobs was still faltering behind him, and soon Venturi was at 18. All the way down the fairway the gallery was five and six deep, and it cheered this tired golfer step by step. "It's all downhill, Ken," the people shouted. He again removed his cap, but his face was wrinkled in concentration as he strained to read the scoreboard across the pond and assure himself that he was, at long, long last, a winner. His ball lay in a bunker alongside the green, but even three more shots would keep him safe.
As he neared his ball, a weird distraction erupted close to the green—a bloody fistfight between two tournament marshals over who could stand where (right). Venturi, seemingly blessed with tunnel vision, ignored them. He played a tricky 35-yard explosion to within 10 feet of the hole, then watched as Floyd sank a short putt along much the same line, demonstrating the slight break to the left. Venturi's putt took the same route into the hole, giving him his 278, the second-lowest score in Open history. Jacobs was second at 282 and Palmer, with his last day's 75-74, tied for fifth behind Bob Charles and Billy Casper.
When he saw the ball on that last putt disappear, Venturi let his putter fall to the grass and raised his arms in joy and relief. "I had told myself that I was going to keep control of myself, that I wasn't going to get emotional," he remembers. "Then Ray Floyd came over to shake my hand and he was crying. So I started crying too."
Imagine. Standing out there in all that sunlight and crying in front of 22,000 people.