A generation of golf fans knows Ken Venturi mostly, or perhaps only, as a voice in the tower behind the 18th green. It is fitting, since he has analyzed the fortunes and misfortunes of those playing the PGA Tour nearly three times longer than he played on it himself.
It is also fitting, considering the wide spectrum of emotions Venturi experienced as a player. Venturi's career was marked by the disappointment of blowing the Masters as an amateur and the vindication of winning the U.S. Open in the midst of an injury-filled decade as pro.
"There was a poll taken a few years ago, and I had the most memorable defeat and the most memorable victory," Venturi said recently.
Some of those memories will be revived this week, when the Open returns to Congressional Country Club in Bethesda after a 33-year absence. It was there, in 1964, that Venturi's image changed dramatically and the format of the tournament itself was altered as a result.
Venturi, struggling with back and wrist problems that had threatened to end an already sagging career, beat Tommy Jacobs by four shots to win his only major championship as a pro. But the record book tells only a small fraction of what will always be one of the sport's enduring stories.
"It was something that wasn't supposed to happen," Venturi, now 67, said in a telephone interview last month from his home in Marco Island, Fla. "It was a storybook ending. You couldn't have written a better story if you had tried."
Playing in stultifying heat, with on-course temperatures near the 100-degree mark, Venturi was almost forced to stop between the third and fourth rounds. It would mark the last time the Open played the final 36 holes on Saturday, a tradition that now seems almost inhuman.
Venturi was so shaky that he couldn't fill out the third-round scorecard of his playing partner, a 21-year-old named Raymond Floyd. One of the tournament's attending physicians, Dr. John Everett, warned Venturi of ominous circumstances if he continued play the final 18 holes.
"[Everett] told me that I was on the verge of heat stroke, and it could be fatal," recalled Venturi, who had bogeyed the last two holes of the third round -- including a missed putt of 18 inches on the 17th green -- to trail Jacobs by two shots. "I said to him, 'It's not any worse than where I've been.' "
Venturi, then 34, was certainly exaggerating, but not a lot. Long recovered from one of the worst blowups ever at Augusta National -- as a 24-year-old amateur, his four-shot lead going into the final round of the 1956 Masters disintegrated and he lost by a stroke to Jackie Burke after shooting 80 -- Venturi's career was in free fall after a string of debilitating injuries.
It wasn't supposed to happen to a player whose seemingly effortless swing had been compared to the legendary Byron Nelson's and whose future was considered as bright as Arnold Palmer's. With Nelson and another legend, Ben Hogan, as his mentors, Venturi had won seven times in his first three years on tour.
Venturi thought he had found redemption at Augusta in the 1960 Masters, only to see imminent victory turn into another agonizing defeat when Palmer birdied the last two holes. It was the victory that launched Palmer's legend.
"I never was one to say, 'Why me?' " said Venturi, a Korean War veteran who had given up a lucrative career selling luxury cars in his native San Francisco to join the tour in the fall of 1956. "My father taught me that the easiest thing to do was to quit. He'd say, 'It doesn't take any talent to do that.' "
Yet Venturi nearly left the tour, first when he sustained a serious wrist injury after being blindsided in an automobile accident in Cleveland a few months after the 1960 Masters and again in 1962, when he felt something snap in his back picking a ball out of a cup during a pro-am in Palm Springs.
He knew that Hogan had come back from a near-fatal car accident to win the Open and nearly the Grand Slam. It was a long recovery process for Venturi, who was forced to relearn his swing as his game and confidence continued to plummet.
Venturi fell from second on the money list in 1960 to 93rd by the end of 1963. He was relegated to trying to get sponsor's exemptions to play the tour in 1964, and wrote to nearly every tournament director in order to play a handful of events. When he failed to qualify, or be invited, to that year's Masters, Venturi had hit bottom.
He also hit the practice range at his home club in San Francisco.
"They say I was hitting balls with a vengeance the week of the Masters, and I guess I was," said Venturi, who had received some much publicized spiritual guidance from a Bay Area priest, Father Francis Murray. "I had something I had to prove and it was only to myself."
During local qualifying for the Open, a couple of fellow pros had to talk him out of quitting after he had an opening-round 77. Venturi shot 66 in the afternoon to make the field at Congressional. Four shots back of first-round leader Palmer after an opening-round 72, Venturi stayed in contention with a second-round 70.
Then came Saturday. He birdied five holes on the front nine to take the lead, and birdied the 12th hole as well. But the heat began to wear him down, as evidenced by the short putts he missed on the final two holes. Jacobs, whose second-round 64 had given him the lead, was still in front.
Floyd told officials that the ashen-faced Venturi was ill.
"I was asked to take a look at him," said Everett, then a family practitioner in Kensington and a 13-handicap player at Congressional. "He was really out of it."
Said Floyd, "He was running on fumes. If you had asked him his name, he could not have told you."
After a 50-minute break, Venturi trudged on for the final round. Everett walked alongside, giving him salt tablets at nearly every hole and applying ice packs to the back of his neck. Everett said the only advice he gave Venturi came after he started wandering off one tee through heavy rough.
"I told him, 'Don't do that' because it would wear him out walking in the high grass," said Everett, now 83 and living in Bradenton, Fla. "He was very determined to finish. It was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen."
When Venturi tapped in his final putt to shoot even par-70, Floyd bent to pick the ball out of the cup. "My first instinct was to throw it to the crowd," said Floyd, who would win the Open at age 43 in 1986. "And then it hit me, what he'd been through. Here was a guy who had been down so far. I saw him scrap and fight to win the most coveted thing in golf. It is one of the most heroic things I have ever seen."
Venturi saw tears streaming down Floyd's face, and emotions overcame him, too.
"My God, I've won the Open," Venturi said in a proclamation that has become part of the tournament's lore. It helped change Venturi's image from a player whose talents many believed went largely unfulfilled -- " 'Poor Ken' Hits It Rich" was the headline in Sports Illustrated that week -- to a player who had come back from adversity.
"After that, they couldn't say I was a choker [because of the 1956 Masters]," Venturi said in an interview a couple of years ago.
Venturi heard later that the USGA was considering changing its format of playing the last two rounds on the same day. He asked Joe Dey, then the USGA's general secretary and later the commissioner of the PGA Tour, to promise him he wouldn't use Venturi's physical condition as the reason.
"I told him, 'Joe, just say it was for the extra day of television,' which it was," Venturi said with his typical bluntness.
Just when it seemed as if his career had turned around, injuries to his wrists and hands eventually led to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Circulatory problems that nearly forced the amputation of three fingers led to an operation at the Mayo Clinic in 1965. He won once more, in the Lucky Invitational in San Francisco in 1966, but stopped playing full time at age 37 two years later.
When CBS producer Frank Chirkinian offered him a chance to do some work as an analyst, Venturi declined. As a child, Venturi had a severe stutter and though he had learned to control it by speaking in short sentences, he was afraid of potential on-air flare-ups.
"I couldn't say my own name when I was 12," Venturi said. "I thought I had a better chance to win the Open than I did to speak without a stammer. As a kid, I had my nose broken a few times because of it.
"People thought I was cocky because I didn't talk much. When I first turned pro, reporters asked me who was going to win. I'd say, 'I am' because it was the easier than giving some long, drawn-out answer."
Venturi had planned to retire from the booth after last season, but lead announcer Jim Nantz talked him into helping the network's rising star adjust to the role as Pat Summerall's successor. Venturi has cut down his schedule this season while attending to his wife, Beau, who is suffering from an inoperable brain tumor.
"She's doing as well as we can hope," said Venturi, his familiar voice cracking with emotion. "She's been a trouper."
It is much more than Venturi endured on a sweltering June afternoon in Bethesda 33 years ago. Not that Venturi can recall what he went through. The memories Venturi carries with him from that day are built more on what people have told him and what he has read than what he actually remembers.
"Sometimes it seems like yesterday," he said, "and sometimes it seems like 100 years ago."
Pub Date: 6/08/97