Ken Venturi died Friday. He was one of my favorite people in sports. I wasn’t yet following golf much when he had his greatest moment, winning the 1964 US Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda under oppressive weather conditions. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame a week and a half before his death, but was too ill to attend.
From the NYT obituary, by Richard Goldstein:
He first gained notice in 1956 as an amateur when he led the Masters by four shots entering the final round, only to shoot an 80, losing to Jack Burke Jr. by a stroke. He was the runner-up at the Masters again in 1960, a shot behind Arnold Palmer, who birdied the final two holes.
But Venturi’s signature moment came at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., on a Saturday in June 1964. Temperatures were approaching 100 degrees, and the humidity seemed unconquerable as the players struggled to play 36 holes, the last time the Open staged its final two rounds on a single day.
Venturi had not won since the 1960 Milwaukee Open, had considering quitting and had been required to participate in two qualifying events before being allowed into the Open. He almost collapsed from the heat on the 17th green of his morning round but carded a remarkable 66.
Going into the final 18 holes, Venturi was two shots behind the leader, Tommy Jacobs. After a 45-minute break, Venturi virtually staggered through the final round, trailed by Dr. John Everett, who was monitoring the players and who had warned him against continuing out of fear he would die from heat prostration.
Everett gave Venturi ice cubes, iced tea and salt pills as he played on, instinct triumphing over the pressure and the exhaustion. Venturi overtook Jacobs and sank a 10-foot putt on the final hole to close out a 70, besting Jacobs by four shots.
“I dropped my putter and I raised my arms up to the sky,” Venturi told The A.P. in 1997. “I said, ‘My God, I’ve won the Open.’ The applause was deafening. It was like thunder coming out there.”
Venturi was so weak that he could not reach into the hole to get his ball, so Raymond Floyd, his playing partner, did it for him.
“I felt this hand on me, and it was Raymond Floyd handing me the ball,” Venturi remembered. “I looked at him, and he had tears streaming down his face.”
As Floyd later told The A.P.: “He was running on fumes. If you had asked him his name, he could not have told you. It is one of the most heroic things I have ever seen.”
Venturi was helped off the green by the United States Golf Association official Joe Dye and was so woozy that he could not read his scorecard. Dye assured him that it was correct and that he could sign it.
A few years later, I bought a book consisting of selected articles from Sports Illustrated, including Alfred Wright’s coverage of the tournament. The article, by far my favorite in the book, was an eye-opener, giving me my first appreciation of the human drama inherent in competitive golf. Now I follow golf more closely than any other sport, and build my Father’s Day weekend around the US Open. SI has made all past articles available in the SI Vault, so you can read Wright’s article here.
Venturi would go on to greater fame as the decades-long analyst for CBS’s golf coverage, paired for years with Pat Summerall, who himself died just last month. Before his career in sports broadcasting, Summerall was another of my heroes, as the place-kicker for my favorite childhood football team, the New York Giants. (Goldstein again wrote the NYT obituary.) Whenever I watch CBS golf coverage, I miss them both.