From the Golf Journal Archives - Why Me? - A Tale of 1964

May 13, 2011

Ken Venturi passed through an astonishing period on his way to his 1964 United States Open Championship, yet today he is at ease with the game and his charities.

By Ken Venturi with Roger Ganem

(Note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 1989 issue of Golf Journal.)

THE TEMPERATURE on the morning of the last two rounds of the 1964 United States Open was in the 90s, and it was to grow hotter. The weather was most uncomfortable. A long drought had seared Washington, D.C., and Congressional Country Club’s rough hadn’t given us the trouble we anticipated.

I had started 72-70, but Tommy Jacobs had tied an Open record with 64 in the second round. That had made Congressional less fearsome, even though it measured 7,053 yards, the longest Open course ever.

That night I read a letter from Father Francis Murray, my priest in San Francisco. He called all the shots. He said he was rooting for a victory not only for me, but also for those who need encouragement and a reason for hope. It gave me a great lift.

On the first hole of the third round, an 8-footer hung on the lip of the cup. I couldn’t believe it. It just hung there. I stared and stared at it for what seemed an eternity. Then as I walked to the ball, it dropped in. I said to myself, “There is one you should not have had. Now you’ve got one shot to play with. Let’s gamble until we lose it.” I shot 30 on the first nine.

I heard later that Vince Lombardi told his wife, Marie, “Venturi is going to win the U.S. Open. Look at his eyes. Always look at a man’s eyes. You can tell if he has fear. Venturi’s eyes on that first hole were the coldest I have ever seen. They could go right through you. When he made that putt, he had the look of a winner.” I still get chills when I think about that remark.

It was still morning, but the heat was getting to me, and to others, too. Nearing the end of that round, my hands started shaking. I bogeyed the last two holes, three-putting the 17th from less than 12 feet and missing my par from the edge of the 18th. I was in with 66. When I climbed into the station wagon that ferried us up a steep hill from the 18th green, Jay Hebert, sitting next to me, asked, “Think you can make it back to the clubhouse? Your eyes are rolling in your head.” I had an uneasy, queasy feeling.

When I reached the locker room, I stretched out on the floor to rest. Dr. John Everett, a member of Congressional, came over to help. He was tremendous. I spent 55 minutes in that position, drinking liquids and taking salt tablets. As I got up, the doctor looked me directly in the eye: “I recommend you don’t go out there. It could be fatal.”

I said, “Doctor, it would be better than the way I’ve been living. I’ve come this far. It’s worth the chance. I must go out. It’s something I have to do. If I should die, my family would not try to sue.” (I wanted this on record. There were people around when we had this conversation.)

From that point on, most everything went blank. I don’t remember how I got to the first tee, don’t remember where I had come from. I teed up and went off pretty much in a trance. That might have been the highest stakes a man has ever placed on one round. I don’t mean just my life. I also mean my golfing life. If I gave up then, it would have been the end. I had no other place to go. For me, it was the last gasp after three miserable years.

AFTER TWO BAD YEARS, I had reached my lowest ebb in 1963. My professional career began after some success as an amateur. I had won often enough in my native California to be selected for the 1953 Walker Cup Team, which earned me an invitation to the 1954 Masters. I couldn’t play because I was called into military service.

Guess who was with me, having Christmas dinner in snowy Austria? Tommy Jacobs. We met playing junior golf in California. We discussed what we were going to do when we got out. We talked about where we were, and where we were going. Who would have known that 10 years later he and I would be going head to head in the Open?

In those early years I played golf and baseball. The famous Lefty O’Doul wanted to sign me to a Yankee farm contract. I was a pretty good hitter and fielder. I started playing golf because, as a kid, I couldn’t talk. My high-school instructor called me an incurable stammerer. I took a lot of ridicule back then, so I would prefer practicing golf shots, which I did by the hours, all the while teaching myself how to speak. I learned to be alone.

During one spell when things weren’t going the way I wanted them to, I told my dad I was going to quit. He then was a ship’s chandler, selling nets and twine to boat captains, and he said, “Son, that’s quite all right. But you know something? That’s the only thing I know of in this world that doesn’t take talent. Anybody can do that.”

I never did it again. I did come close once, though, in a qualifying round for the 1964 Open. It would be another of many incidents in my life that led to my winning that championship. I feel everything I had done in golf led to that victory.

After that sermon from my father, things started to go well with me, and I began winning junior tournaments. One day, after I had won the San Francisco Amateur, the California Amateur, the Northern California Amateur, and some other tournaments, I told him how good I was. He listened for a while, then he said, “Son, if you’re as good as you say you are, you can tell anybody, but when you get really good, they’ll tell you.” From that day on, I never told anybody I was any good.

I missed playing in the 1955 Masters because of military service, but the next year the past winners of the Masters, who can invite one player not otherwise eligible, voted me in. Opening day, I birdied the first four holes, shot 32 on the first nine, then came back with 34, for a 66. With 69 the second day, I was the only one to break 70. When I began the final round, I led by four strokes over Cary Middlecoff, and by eight over Jackie Burke, the eventual winner.

I definitely lost that one. I had such a great start and such a good lead, but I shot 80, and I let it get away. It was inexperience; my priorities were wrong. I was told by my peers that I was going to win, and I found myself agreeing with them. I was going to win. As I headed for the first tee, a friend told me I would become a millionaire with the title. I went out thinking a 72 would be all I needed, because of the conditions (it was windy and cool). I had never thought that way before. Until that round, I had played the course hole by hole. That mistake taught me a lesson that helped me in the 1964 Open.

LOSING THAT MASTERS was a big blow, but the aftermath was worse. The remarks and insinuations were cruel. I didn’t say those things. The most damaging was a statement by a San Francisco reporter taken completely out of context. It actually got me booed when I went back to Augusta the following year. Here’s what happened.

Since I had such a big lead, Cliff Roberts, the chairman of the Masters Committee, came to me and said, “Ken, we feel you are going to win the Masters, but if Byron Nelson, who everyone knows is your teacher, plays with you as the leader in the final round (Byron traditionally opened with the defending champion, and closed with the leader), and you win, it would be a hollow victory. We think you should change. But I’ll tell you this: You can pick anybody in the whole field you wish.”

I could have chosen Jackie Burke, Mike Souchak, Bob Rosburg, or anybody, but I thought, “I’ve played and walked with Hogan, Nelson, the best,” so I said, “I’d like to play with Sam Snead.”

When the round was over I was asked if Sam had talked to me. “Well,” I said, “I guess he tried to, but when he saw how nervous I was, he left me alone.” My mother was standing with me, and she was crying. “You could have been the Masters champion,” she said. I hugged her and said, “Mom, forget it. We’ll show ‘em. We’ll win the Open.”

The reporter wrote, “They changed the pairings at the Masters because they didn’t want an amateur to win. Sam Snead gave Ken the silent treatment, but Venturi vows revenge, swears he will win the Open and show ‘em.”

I got letters and telephone calls. You can’t believe what had been done to me. Here I had just accomplished something, coming so close, and all of a sudden it crumbled. It was hard to live with that, being booed and all.

Something else happened as well. A photo of me appeared with the caption: “Look at Venturi, raising the victory sign.” Do you know what I was doing? I was asked if I wanted a Coke, but, in those years, I still stammered, and I couldn’t make a sound. I held up my fingers to ask for two Cokes.

Two well-known golf writers did defend me, and I’ll always remember their kindness. Linc Werden, who was with The New York Times, and Waxo Green, from the Nashville Banner, both said, “Ken, we know you never made those remarks. It just isn’t you. Hang in there.” Even to this day, Waxo calls me “Champ.”

Years later I spoke at a dinner with Sam Snead attending. I said, “Sam, I apologize for the trouble this article in the press caused you. But if I had to do it all over again, I would still pick you.”

I couldn’t do much about all of this. I hadn’t said any of those things or implied anything. My dad helped me again: “If you are right, that’s all that counts. You can’t go to everybody and explain your situation.” So I had to let my clubs and my attitude take over. When I won the 1964 U.S. Open, the situation reversed itself. Players and other friends told the news media they never heard me complain, that I didn’t moan when I was down and nearly out. I was vindicated.

I HAD TURNED professional in November, 1956, but in those days you couldn’t collect money for a six-month period. In 1957 I came on like wildfire, winning a couple of early tournaments before I could be paid. The 1957 Open, at the Inverness Club, in Toledo, Ohio, was my first Open as a professional (in 1956, Venturi was low amateur in the Open at Oak Hill, finishing eighth, eight strokes behind Cary Middlecoff, the winner). I tied for sixth.

In January of 1958, Bing Crosby invited me to play in his Pro-Am, but I heard rumbles that I did not deserve an exemption because I had just turned professional, while others who had been out here longer had to qualify. I went to Bing and said, “We’re friends. You’ve got to let me qualify, too. Remember, I have to play against these guys. I don’t want any favors, Bing.”

Bing said, “Hey, it’s my tournament. I can do what I want. But you do what you think you have to do. Just make sure you make it. I want you in this tournament.”

I led the qualifiers with 69. The lesson learned was that I had to prove myself right from the beginning of my career.

These were great years: I won the 1958 Thunderbird, Phoenix Open, Baton Rouge, Gleneagles-Chicago, was runner-up at New Orleans, and tied for fourth in the Masters, That was the year Arnold Palmer eagled the 13th and went on to nose out Fred Hawkins and Doug Ford. In 1959 I won the Los Angeles Open, the Crosby, the Milwaukee, and was second in the Houston Classic. I finished third in three others. In 1960, I won Milwaukee and had many top-10 finishes, but the memorable event was the Masters that I lost by one stroke to Palmer. I was in the clubhouse, the apparent winner. It was 100-to-l I could lose. My 283 was posted, and I would finally win the Green Jacket. But amazing Arnie made a super finish, scoring birdie 3s on the last two holes, for 282.

Arnie’s finish was incredible, but it didn’t hit me until the following year, when he finished 4-4-6 to give the same title to Gary Player. It’s all timing.

A STRETCH DURING the early 1960s was the low point in my career. I was in an automobile accident, in 1961, when a courtesy driver was broadsided. My back never responded to treatment, and I lost my ability to play winning golf, or even respectable golf. I had walking pneumonia; I was broke; I was desolate. I was drinking too much. Moreover, I heard I was acting like a real jerk. The owner of a bar I used to go to asked me, “What’s with you, Ken? You have so much talent. What are you doing?”

His remark hit home. I didn’t like me, my life, what I was doing. I was in wretched shape. I hated everything because of what was happening to me. I confided in Bill Varni, who owned a popular restaurant, that I was running out of time and cash. “You’re crazy,” he said. “I will offer you, right now, $50,000 in exchange for your winnings and endorsements for the year.” It was tempting; not only did I need the money, but it was a sign of faith in me. If Bill hadn’t been a friend, I might have accepted.

I returned the next night, ordered a drink, changed my mind and asked for a double. Bill Varni watched. I sipped it, then leaned over the bar and dropped the glass into the trash basket I said, “Bill, I will not take another drink until I win again.” And I didn’t until I won the 1964 U.S. Open.

I practiced for a month, going to the course in the early morning, and ending the day on the 10th tee, where I’d hit 75 tee shots. I would retire to the locker room, and arouse myself from the bench about 8 or 9 o’clock at night, so exhausted I was hardly able to move. Day after day, I did it again and again and again.

I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve, but I am a believer. I’m a Catholic, and I go to church every Sunday. That’s for me to do. But I made a plea, on my knees: Do with me what You will, but please don’t let me die like this.

He gave me back my game: He gave me everything that year of 1964. I soon got the biggest break in my life. It changed my life.

I played in several Tour events at the start of 1964, but I wasn’t scaring anybody. My game was shaping up, however. I stopped at the Indy 500, and watched the race with Johnny Boyd. Then I decided to do something I had never done before. Because I stood so low on the money-winning list, I wasn’t exempt from qualifying for the Thunderbird Classic, but the tournament sponsor has the right to invite a few players and give them special exemptions. I telephoned Bill Jennings at the Westchester Country Club, near New York City, and asked for a sponsor’s exemption. I said, “Bill, if I don’t get this invitation, I’m going back to selling cars. I can’t afford to stay out here anymore. I had to sell everything just to keep going as long as I could. I want to play. I feel I am so close, so ready. I need this, Bill. I’m begging you.”

He suggested I stop by I said I couldn’t; I didn’t have the money to get to New York. I called back the next day and Bill and Fred Corcoran had made the decision to give me the remaining spot in the tournament.

I knew I was ready. I had been working my way up in the early Tour stops. There was some rust, but I was at peace: I was playing within myself. Nothing bothered me. I was hitting shots like the Venturi of old. My body didn’t hurt, my back didn’t hurt, I had no spasms. I felt good. More important, I felt good about myself.

I went to Westchester and gave it a good run. Tony Lema birdied the last two holes to push me into third place, but I shot 67-70-72-70, for 279. The next week it was the Buick Open, and Tony won again, but I tied for sixth.

Now to Congressional and the U.S. Open. To get there I had to make it through qualifying rounds, and I almost pulled out during one of them. Reminded that it takes no talent to quit, I didn’t.

AT WESTCHESTER I had spent some time in New York visiting Toots Shor, a restaurateur friend of many athletes. The night I was there, Toots sent drinks to the patrons, saying they were on me! Everybody came over to thank me and wish me luck in the Open. I had to tell Toots I could hardly pay for my own dinner; how was I going to settle for all those drinks?

He said, “Who’s worrying, pally? Forget it.” But I wasn’t about to. So I shook his hand, “Toots, I’ll come back when I win one. I will be back.”

He said, “I know you will, you crum bum,’ his term of endearment.

The week of the Open, the president of the United States had a lawn party for past winners and some of the favorites. I was playing nine holes with Paul Harney, who asked, “How come you aren’t at the White House?” I said I wasn’t invited. He looked puzzled: “I can't believe it.”

I could. I hadn’t won for a few years, and considering my recent record, I wasn’t a logical contender. Tony Lema was the only one to pick me to win.

The weather was so hot I only played another nine holes of practice the next day.

I had begun the Open with 72 and 70, and in the morning round of the final day of play, I came in with that 66, so I started the final round two strokes behind Tommy Jacobs. Dr. Everett walked the final 18 holes with me, giving me salt tablets and cooling me off with ice cubes wrapped in a towel. I just kept plodding along, oblivious to some things, noticing others.

ON THE 12TH HOLE I saw the author Herbert Warren Wind standing in the heat wearing a long-sleeved shirt and a tie. I thought, “Good Lord, people are dropping like flies and here’s a fashion plate. Herb looks worse than I feel.”

I was doing practically everything by instinct. After all the years of practicing, the swing was there, at least for that week. I just let it happen. And it did. I found out later I hit the same club in the afternoon round on 14 of the 18 holes, and selected just one club different on the other four.

The flagsticks looked to me like telephone poles. I was paired with Raymond Floyd. He said it was the best 36 holes of striking the ball he had ever seen. I knew I was hitting the ball solidly. I didn’t look sideways, just where I was going. On the hilly lies I somehow knew the position I had to take and what I had to do. I had done it a million times, relying on muscle memory, playing by feel.

WHEN I REACHED my ball after driving on the 18th, I was able to see the scoreboard across the pond, and I noticed only one name in red letters – mine. That told me I had to be in the lead by at least two strokes because I was two under par.

I took my hat off for the first time, and I remember hearing the applause from the crowd. No excessive noise or screaming or yelling, just a steady applause that didn’t stop until I was ready to hit my second shot. That second shot. I did the craziest thing letting it roll into a bunker. I was just trying to hit it, to guide it onto the green. Instead, it finds the sand, but I’m thinking, you’ve got it won, just get it close. Then I heard Joe say, “Hold your head high like the champion you are.”

I remember a fight between two marshals near the 18th green. I saw them rolling in the dust, and I thought, “Please don’t land on my ball.” As it was, my ball was nowhere near the marshals.

This was the last hole I’d have to play, and I was pacing myself, walking very slowly, maybe too slowly. I might have sensed I was taking more time than usual, but if I asked Joe Dey, the USGA’s Executive Director, if I would be penalized for slow play, I don’t recall. I do remember that he and Hord Hardin, a USGA officer, were with me every step of the way.

Now here comes the shot that makes me break out in a cold sweat every time I see it on film, I blasted the ball out! I took a full swing, swoosh, and it stopped 10 feet from the hole. When I watch it now, I realize I could have bladed it right over the green into the water that I was trying to avoid with my second shot. It shows you do go by instinct or impulse at times. Later, doing a clinic for CBS, I got back into the same bunker and chipped out with an 8-iron to within five feet of the hole.

And that putt – that putt should not have gone into the hole. The break is from left to right, but I pushed it! How it rolled up the incline and still found the cup is beyond me. Honest.

The tremendous applause started up again, and seemed to stay with me all the way to the scorer’s tent. Once I was there, I just sat staring. I couldn’t sign my name. I turned in Ray Floyd’s card, which I was supposed to have kept, but it was blank. If you offered me a million dollars, I couldn’t tell you one shot Ray hit. I couldn’t even sign my own card. I put the pencil down. I was scared to death to do anything. Scared. I didn’t remember the holes. I didn’t remember what I had done. Finally a man came up, put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Sign it, Ken. It’s right.”

He was Joe Dey.

CALLS CAME FROM everyone – Toots, Bing Crosby, Nelson, everyone, until the wee hours of the morning. It just wouldn’t stop. I had a quick sleep, and I was getting ready to fulfill my promise to Toots and stop in his place in New York City. Just as I was leaving, I got a call from the White House, inviting me to lunch to celebrate the victory. What timing. What to do? I did what I thought I should: I said, “With no disrespect to the President, please give him my regrets, but I have an appointment with Toots Shor.”

Toots’s place was jammed when I walked in, but what a welcome. He said that in all his years in the restaurant business, this was the only time anyone had ever received a standing ovation from his customers.

This was definitely to be my best year. I seemed to win everything – three tournaments, Player of the Year, Sportsman of the Year, chosen by Sports Illustrated in an Olympic year, Comeback Athlete of the Year, just about all possible awards of that nature. Then my fingers began to go numb. I went to the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn., I was operated on in June, 1965. The doctors were pessimistic about my future as a golfer, but I looked forward and worked hard preparing for 1966. It produced one of the oddest and most satisfying victories of my career.

I was playing in the Lucky International, at the Harding Park municipal course, in San Francisco, over the very same course where I had hit my first golf ball. My father was managing the course then, and I was playing in front of my hometown friends, who had lived and died with me.

I was paired with none other than Arnold Palmer in the final round, and I was tied with him four strokes behind Frank Beard, the leader. Talk about motivation. I was eager. Palmer said he had never seen me so determined. I was caught up with its significance.

We all shot 33s on the first nine, and nothing changed in the standings, but Palmer came back in 36, and Beard in 38. I grabbed another 33 and won by one over Frank and by two over Arnie. It felt good. I felt good. My game the remainder of the year was undistinguished, but in retrospect I couldn’t have selected a more appropriate setting for my final professional victory.

Now, today, my hands still peel a lot, and my fingers don’t look too good, but there is no pain. I still like to practice hitting the ball right to left, left to right, high, low, whatever, and have fun with the staff at Eagle Creek Club, in Naples, Fla., but I don’t play any competitive golf.

I never reminisce about my past. Today I am exactly where I want to be, working with CBS, involved in golf and my charities, especially the Guiding Eyes for the Blind and Camp Venture for retarded children. If I had the choice of being anybody in the world, I would choose to be me. I have no animosity, I don’t dislike anything that has happened to me. I don’t regret anything, because if it hadn’t been just the way it was, there wouldn’t be a today for me.

Had I won the Masters as an amateur I probably would be in Detroit with the Ford Motor Company. At that time I worked as vice president of Lake Merced Motors, selling automobiles.

And if Bill Jennings had said, “No,” there would not have been a 1964 for me at all. No comeback, no major victory, no story, no nothing.

It is truly amazing: I started playing golf because I couldn’t talk. Now, because of golf, that’s what I do for a living – talk, covering golf tournaments on television.

For I am luckier than any man
Or any man should be.*

*From the poem “Why Me?” by Ken Venturi,
Lahinch Golf Club, Ireland, September 25, 1987.

The 2011 U.S. Open will be played at Congressional Country Club from June 16-19. For more information about the championship, visit the U.S. Open website.

Recovered from the steamy final 36 holes of play in his Open victory, Venturi made his acceptance remarks. (USGA Museum)

Ken Venturi putts at Congressional Country Club during the 1964 U.S. Open Championship. (USGA Museum)

Venturi tees off at the 10th hole during the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club. (USGA Museum)