- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

“His is the cruel, the ugly and eventually the inspiring story of a defeated man who refused to accept failure. … It is the story of a man who found faith, particularly in himself.”

Sports Illustrated, naming Ken Venturi as Sportsman of the Year for 1964

Forty-one years ago this week, a golfer who barely knew where he was or what he was doing staggered onto the 18th green at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club and somehow rapped a 10-foot putt into the cup.

Then it was that the thrilling reality penetrated Ken Venturi’s mental fog, and he flung his arms high in the air.

“My God!” he exclaimed. “I’ve won the Open!”

So he had. After years of total frustration, Venturi at age 32 was the momentary master of all he surveyed in linksland.

Professional golf has produced countless dramatic triumphs in the four decades since, but this one was special.

For one thing, Venturi was capturing his first major at a time when most connoisseurs of the game considered him washed up. Battling injuries, illness and a fondness for the bottle, he had not won a tournament of any kind for four years, gaining entrance to some only through the gift of sponsors’ exemptions. Long gone was the high promise of 1956, when as an amateur he led the Masters through three rounds only to sabotage himself with a miserable 80 on the final day.

For another, he was making his unlikely bid for an Open title under the most daunting weather conditions imaginable.

On this day, the Washington area’s usual searing summer climate had arrived with a soggy splash. By some accounts, the temperature reached 106 degrees and the humidity 95 percent. Even worse, the U.S. Golf Association was continuing to decree — mercifully for the last time because of Venturi’s ordeal — that players make their tortured way through 36 agonizing holes on the third and final day of its national championship.

Nowadays the most obtuse golfer on the planet (did anybody mention John Daly?) would fortify himself with enough water to float several battleships on such a steamy occasion. But this was in 1964, when many citizens were less health-conscious and some still considered smoking cigarettes harmless.

“My getting sick and dehydrated was my own fault,” Venturi would tell Golf Digest decades later. “In the morning round, I was so focused on playing I didn’t take one drink of water. At the break, I drank a lot of iced tea with caffeine, which is bad for you in hot weather, so by the afternoon I was in bad shape.”

To put it mildly.

“The doctor who followed me around, [Congressional member] John Everett, kept feeding salt tablets to me — I think I consumed 18 of ‘em that afternoon — but we know today that they can further dehydrate you in hot weather. In the end, I beat a tough golf course and a great field, but I also overcame my own mistakes.”

Can a professional golfer go on automatic pilot if necessary? Apparently, Venturi did. He lost eight pounds during his 36-hole ordeal against dehydration and heat exhaustion and later said he remembered little of what transpired.

Following rounds of 72-70 that left him six strokes off the lead after the first two days, Venturi made the third-round turn in a remarkable 30 and finished with a 66 to take charge of the tournament. But his deteriorating condition led to blown short putts on 17 and 18, and between rounds he lay gasping on the floor of the clubhouse as Everett fed him liquids and salt tablets.

“There was no breeze, and the heat was brutal,” recalled Ray Floyd, Venturi’s 21-year-old playing partner. “People were even dropping in the gallery.”

After examining Venturi, Everett gave the golfer his recommendation with the bark off: “Don’t go back out there. It could be fatal.”

Venturi, of course, ignored the grim advice.

“I told him, ‘[Dying] was better than the way I’ve been living.’ I was flat broke, and I had nowhere else to go. … I’d come this far and gotten this close. Maybe [continuing] was stupid, but in competition you do things you don’t normally do.”

When Venturi ventured back onto the course, he was trailing by two shots. Then the autopilot kicked in as he reeled his way along accompanied by the doctor, one marshal holding an umbrella, another wielding a first-aid walkie-talkie, a policeman and USGA executive director Joe Dey.

As he approached his 36th hole of the day, he looked at the scoreboard and saw his was the only sub-par score — meaning he led the tournament by at least two shots. When Venturi holed out for par after blasting his ball from a bunker, he fell to his knees weeping.

He wasn’t the only one. Seeing subsequently that Venturi was too exhausted to bend over and retrieve his ball, Floyd did so. When he handed it to the new champion, the young man was crying, too.

“I couldn’t remember one single shot Ray Floyd hit,” Venturi said later. “I just handed him his card and said, ‘I don’t know what you shot.’ I only signed my card because Dey told me it was correct.”

Correct and unforgettable. Foggy or not, Venturi’s final round produced pars on the last four holes for a 70-278, just two shots above the Open record. He beat runner-up Tommy Jacobs by four strokes.

Venturi’s painful triumph earned him about $17,000. This year’s winner, Michael Campbell, earned $1,170,000.

After retiring from the tour in 1968 following carpal tunnel surgery with 14 PGA Tour titles to his name, Venturi spent 32 years as a popular commentator on CBS golf telecasts and also captained the U.S. team to victory in the 2000 Presidents’ Cup. When Ken worked his final TV tournament in 2002, fittingly it was the Kemper Open at the TPC at Avenel — perhaps a 5-iron across the road from the scene of his most memorable achievement.

Fully cured after a bout with prostate cancer, he spends time now at age 73 lecturing and teaching about golf. And should any skeptic inquire how hard whacking a little white ball around the greensward can be, Ken Venturi can supply a definitive answer.

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