He hooked and sliced, he clutched hand warmers and grimaced between shots as he vigorously massaged his too-white fingers, he sank one long putt after another, he scrambled to a mediocre 72, and the next day he withdrew from the tournament. As a comeback it seemed far from inspirational, but it was as significant an 18 holes of golf as anybody had played in a long time and it left Ken Venturi practically elated. He had reason to be. Despite chill winds and near-freezing temperatures on the first day of last week's Pensacola Open, the U.S. Open champion had proved, at least to his own satisfaction, that his never-dull golf career had not come to an abrupt end just when it seemed really about to begin at last.
Since last October, Venturi has suffered from a circulatory ailment in the fingers of both hands that is known medically as periarteritis nodosa. It is a disorder that so drastically reduced the flow of blood into Venturi's hands that the skin began to peel, the fingers felt cold to the touch and they turned white as frozen flounder.
The first signal that something this horrifying was happening came last fall during the Picadilly World Match Play Championship in Great Britain. The skin on Venturi's fingers became dry and flaky. Through October and November the condition grew worse and the fingers began to feel numb. The colder the weather, the number they got. Unable to work at his profession with his accustomed diligence, Venturi moped around his Hillsborough, Calif. home in a glum lethargy, staring at his fingers, trying to keep them warm and getting fat from the lack of activity.
"When I tried to play," Venturi says, "it didn't even feel as if I had a golf club in my hands. It might as well have been a broomstick. I never had any idea of what I was doing or where the club head was. At night, when the hands were warm and the blood started pushing back into the fingers, they would throb like crazy. They felt as if they were about to explode."
Feeling also as if his world were about to collapse, Venturi visited a skin specialist, without success, and then was sent to Dr. Robert Woods of Los Angeles, the internist who successfully treated Dodger Pitcher Sandy Koufax for a similar ailment three years ago. Some preliminary treatment afforded relief, but the harsh weather that lashed the Crosby tournament in January caused him to suffer such a fierce relapse that his hands felt as if they had been in a refrigerator overnight. At one point they were so painful that he putted wearing a pair of thick, fur-lined leather gloves.
"The fingers got so white and awful looking," says Venturi, "that when I showed them to Bob Goalby one day while we were playing Cypress I scared him half to death."
After the Crosby, Venturi stopped playing altogether and in late January underwent an extensive examination that involved minor surgery. Preliminary tests had indicated that he also had circulatory difficulties in the vicinity of his right shoulder blade and his left shin-bone. To obtain a sample of tissue for diagnosis, one-inch incisions were made in these areas. Subsequent analysis confirmed that Venturi did, indeed, have periarteritis nodosa. He was given daily dosages of Priscoline and Ilidar, drugs to expand and open the arteries, and Coumadin, to thin the blood. His circulation thus somewhat restored, Venturi went south to the soothing, 80° climate of Palm Springs to try and restore his golf game, too. The results were promising. For a few days he merely chipped and putted, but he soon was able to put himself through a full-scale practice session. In late February, with Dr. Woods as his caddie, he played 15 holes at the Thunderbird Country Club. Even in the cool late-afternoon shadows, only the tip of his right index finger turned white.
"After being able to play in Palm Springs I knew that I was not going to be a total loss as a golfer," Venturi, if not ebullient at least optimistic, said last week. "I proved I could always play in hot weather."
He carried this hopeful frame of mind into the opening round at Pensacola, his first competitive effort in six weeks. In case optimism was not enough, he also brought with him from home plenty of winter clothes, a large, black electric vibrator for his hands, the leather gloves he putted with at the Crosby tournament, two pocket-type hand warmers, nitroglycerin salve and cortisone, both solid and liquid.
During the first day at Pensacola, his always volatile emotions shifted as quickly as the wind that buffeted the course. At 11:20 a.m., when he drove up to the clubhouse with Mike Souchak and Phil Rodgers, he was cautious. It was 45° and overcast. "If it doesn't get any warmer than this," he said, "I'm not going to tee off."
Tea and hot water
By 12 noon he was approaching deep despair. An unsettling seven-minute session on the practice tee had left his fingers alabaster colored from the knuckles to the fingertips.
"Let's face it," he said, "these fingers are never going to get better. As soon as it gets cold, they're gone."
By 12:48 p.m. his mood was more experimental. The sun had come out, and Venturi had soaked his hands in near-scalding water and relaxed in the warmth of the dining room with a cup of tea. "Well, I'll try it for nine holes just to see what happens," he said. By 2:45 p.m. he seemed almost exhilarated. He holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the ninth green right in front of the clubhouse to turn in a one-under-par 35, and he waved his hand jubilantly and broke into a broad grin. "The first two holes were hard. My fingers felt like stubs," he said. "But after that I started to warm up and began to hit some terrific shots. Blam, blam, blam!"
By 5:15 he had played 18 holes, made five birdies, five bogeys and eight pars, and was completely satisfied with his progress. "It was cold out today, but my hands got back to normal so quickly that I'm really encouraged," he said. Swinging his driver was difficult, because this club must be gripped so tightly for so long, and delicate pitch shots were tough to play because he is deprived of the sense of touch he would normally have. But the putting was mechanical, and he did that remarkably well, one-putting 11 greens.
By 7 p.m. he was back in his motel room with a bottle of beer, and he felt expansive and optimistic again. "Last year at this time I thought a 72 was just great for me," he said. "Now, even with the trouble in my fingers, I think, so what. That's how much better my game is. But all I can really say is thank God for the U.S. Open. If it wasn't for winning the Open these fingers would make me a mental case. Last year I had to beg my way into tournaments. Now I automatically qualify for everything. I can rest my hands and pick my spots. It's over 80° in Miami, and I'm drooling to get down there to practice and start playing again. With warm weather for the next few weeks my fingers should get better. My game should be in fine shape for the Masters."
The next day at Pensacola was a not so balmy 42°, but Venturi was out of the tournament and headed for Miami. Full of enthusiasm, he was starting another chapter in his remarkable career. And if you looked at your own hands, and you thought of him, and you reflected on what a sense of touch means to a golfer, you had to hope it was going to be very warm in Miami, or wherever Ken Venturi went.