From the Golf Journal Archives - The Last Marathon

May 20, 2011

Ken Venturi survived the sweltering heat and won the 1964 Open, and in the process he helped change the course of history.

By Irwin Smallwood

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1997 issue of Golf Journal.)

IN THE ANNALS OF CHAMPIONSHIP GOLF, the 1964 U.S. Open ranks up there with all the great ones. Never mind that the winner was not en route to a Grand Slam at Interlachen, did not hole out from the high grass at the 71st hole at Pebble Beach, or bolt out of the azaleas at age 46 to win yet another green jacket at Augusta National. For sheer drama, it has had few, if any, equals. The best of Hollywood’s script writers could not have dreamed it.

Almost everyone at Congressional Country Club on June 20, that sweltering Saturday in 1964, remembers the intricate details as if it were yesterday. Except, strangely, the man who won it. Ken Venturi, to this day, has difficulty recalling anything but hazy generalities.

But that is getting ahead of the story.

The postwar golf surge was in full throttle. Though Jack Nicklaus had mounted an authentic challenge to the preeminence of Arnold Palmer, having beaten him in his back yard at Oakmont in the ‘62 Open, The King arrived at Congressional at the top of his game and a strong favorite; barely two months earlier, Palmer had become the first to win the Masters four times.

Television was becoming a major force in the game as the Open field gathered in suburban Washington, D.C., for the first time in 43 years.

And the Open was still determining its champion with a 36-hole final day of competition. The PGA Tour had abandoned the marathon wind-up a full decade earlier, but the USGA had steadfastly stuck by what had become known as one of the ultimate endurance tests in American sport.

Now, 33 years later, it is abundantly clear that the combination of the nearly unbearable heat and the double-round finish played almost as big a role in making the ‘64 championship one for the ages as did Venturi’s remarkable shot-making itself. The greatest drama of the final rounds sprang as much from Venturi’s struggle to survive physically as it did from his wrestling with the devils of the golf course and the competing field. But he would be the last to have to face such a challenge.

The ‘64 Open was the last one to be contested over a Thursday-Friday-Saturday span, with 36 holes on Saturday. The official line from the USGA was that the change to a four-day format was made because the 36-hole wrap-up put too much emphasis on endurance. Others insisted, and still do, that television played at least an equally compelling role in the decision. Whatever, when the Open was played over four days at Bellerive in St. Louis the following summer, NBC televised the last two rounds in living color for the first time, expanding its coverage to more than a dozen cameras and using a staff of some 75.

The U.S. Open was forever changed – for the better, most agree more than three decades later – and so was at least a measure of the competition itself.

UNQUESTIONABLY, WHAT HAPPENED that sultry Saturday in ‘64 remains one of the most bizarre chapters in the history of major golf competition. Between the morning round, in which Venturi shot 66 to vault into contention, and the afternoon round, he was advised by an attending physician, Congressional member Dr. John Everett, not to go on, that his life could be in danger if he did. His exhaustion from the heat was that severe.

It was an eerie sight in the locker room. Venturi was stretched out on the floor after staggering off the course. Other players and members of the press gathered around him in silent wonderment. Being a Northern California boy, Venturi would later note, he had little knowledge of the need for fluids under such conditions and had played the morning round with nothing to drink. After resting for just under an hour and taking in large quantities of iced tea and lemon, he went out and completed a remarkable day of scoring. He shot 66-70 to make him the only player in the field to break par for 72 holes and just the third in history to play 72 holes in the Open in fewer than 280 strokes.

Yet all of this remains to this day a cloudy picture in Venturi’s mind. He recalls little about going into the locker room between rounds and hardly anything of what Dr. Everett said or did. “I don’t even remember going from the locker room to the first tee (for the afternoon round),” said Venturi, whose return to Congressional this month will be as an honored guest.

Venturi claims the front nine of the last round is a total blank to him but adds that “I’ve seen a lot of the pictures and movies of the back nine, so I recall that, and I do remember walking down 18. It was kind of a blessing that I didn’t feel any pressure. I just let my talent take care of itself … all I did was go from tee to green, and all I saw was the pin … I just went on by reflex.”

The first time Venturi remembers heat exhaustion overtaking him was at the 17th in the morning round. “I was six under par and had about a 12-footer to go seven under, and I knocked it about a foot by and started shaking,” he recalls. “I missed that putt. Then at 18 I chipped it by about three feet and I missed that one and I started shaking again. Everything started going dizzy. I walked off the green and had no idea where I was. They took me up to the clubhouse in a car, and called Dr. Everett. He laid me down on the floor and started giving me salt tablets and liquids.”

Next thing Venturi knew, though, it was an hour later. “They said it was time to go, and I heard them, and I said ‘okay’ but I don’t remember saying it. And I know when I gave Ray Floyd (his fellow competitor) his card in the afternoon, it didn’t have a single number on it. To this day I don’t know what he shot, and I can’t tell you a single shot he hit.”

He likewise remembers almost nothing of Dr. Everett’s ministering to him during the afternoon round. “I don’t remember drinking, but I know he kept handing me water and salt tablets. He told me that from the time I arrived to the time I finished, he gave me 18 salt tablets.” Despite dire warnings of the consequences of continuing to play, Venturi said he never once considered stopping. “I had come that far, and I was not about to quit now. I had been working so hard. There was no way I was not going to go out there.”

VENTURI POOH-POOHS the notion the Open dropped its 36-hole finish based on his agonizing experience. “They claim they changed the ruling to go to 18 holes a day because of me,” he said, “and I said that’s not true, don’t use me as an excuse. I told (then USGA Executive Director) Joe Dey that. I said, ‘Don’t ever use me as an excuse because 36 holes was a blessing (to me).’ I said, ‘You’re doing it because of television and because of the money.’ ”

Others agree. Floyd, who played with Venturi the last two rounds at Congressional, acknowledges that the endurance factor may have played a role in the decision but views the change as something that was fairly inevitable. “It was an era … when television was starting to be big time, and to get that extra day on television was incredible, I mean, from a monetary standpoint,” he said.

Though he had nothing to do with the decision, Billy Joe Patton, one of the most successful amateurs of the 1960s and later a member of the USGA Executive Committee, says that “I think it was TV that really made up their minds.” And at least one person who was part of the USGA’s decision, Fred Brand Jr., does not wholly disagree.

“I don’t think it was any one thing,” said Brand, then a member of the USGA Executive Committee. “It was a combination of many (things) … the heat, the endurance contest … and if I said television had no place in it at all, why, I dare say it did. I don’t think it was the dominant factor, but in turn it helped the USGA and it helped golf in many ways, not only from a spectator’s viewpoint on television, but financially, I’m sure, it helped the USGA …”

Brand says he has no recall of the details of the Executive Committee’s deliberations when the decision to change the format was made in January 1965, by a vote of 9-2. “It was (a decision) of long standing. It came to a climax because of the tremendous heat.”

The ‘64 Open, then, by nearly all accounts, was the trigger for the change, if not the sole cause. And one who had a hand in pulling the trigger was William C. Campbell, one of America’s great amateurs of the era and a member of the Executive Committee at decision time. Campbell got his perspective on the ‘64 Open as a 72-hole participant. In fact, his first 36-hole total of 144 was only two strokes higher than Venturi’s.

Campbell, who finished with rounds of 79 and 76, flew back to his West Virginia home and the next morning wrote a letter to Hord Hardin, then a vice president of the USGA and chairman of the Championship Committee, the group that oversees the conditions of play for all USGA championships. Campbell said in essence that the time had come to make a change. His concern then, and now, was the endurance effects of the 36-hole finish. Television, he said, “had nothing to do” with his position on the matter.

Dey presented a detailed report to the Executive Committee for its deliberations and Campbell, as was the case with Brand, does not claim any detailed recall of what was reported or said behind closed doors 30 years ago.

“I have an impression, but I’m not accountable for every little thing that happened,” Campbell says, “and furthermore, I cannot be because whatever was discussed in the committee meeting... is not subject to my telling about it, because that’s in chambers.”

He added: “One can rationalize the decision to include the larger audience, because of the extra day … (television) obviously had an indirect effect, but it had no motivational aspect whatsoever for me. It certainly was not what caused me to bring the matter up.” Campbell, incidentally, makes no claim for the effect his letter had on the decision. “If I had not done it,” he said, “undoubtedly somebody else would have, or it might have sprung forth from the committee itself.”

THOUGH ALMOST NO ONE SUGGESTS the game should return to 36-hole finishes, giving them up did change the nature of the competition and, in some instances, perhaps profoundly. The ‘64 Open could have crowned a different champion had it been a four-day event. “I don’t know if I could have played the next day,” Venturi said. “I might have been in a hospital.”

Venturi added that, as a traditionalist, “I always thought it was a great test of golf. (Ben) Hogan said that he always liked it because of that. He said if he had druthers, he’d like to have 36 holes on the final day.”

Sam Snead admits the marathon finish worked to his advantage in his prime. “I was strong as an ox and dumb as a deer,” he said. “I stayed in good shape and I overhauled a lot of guys that maybe I wouldn’t have beaten if it had been four days.”

Patton, the ebullient amateur who came within a whisker of beating Snead and Hogan in the ‘54 Masters, is one who thinks the 36-hole final was great. “Part of the game is being in good shape, and walking 36 holes the last day suited me just fine,” he said. “The world is full of four-day tournaments. I think 36 holes the last day is a better way to select a national champion.”

But Floyd is not so sure. “I don’t think you really, truly got the best player winning when you had an endurance contest,” he said. He admits that endurance still plays a role, “but golf is not a game that should be decided on endurance.”

One thing most all do agree on is that it altered the competition when the change was made. A player who charges into contention with a hot third round cannot simply “keep it going,” as they say. Now he has Saturday night to lie awake and worry about whether he can maintain his edge the following afternoon. Conversely, a challenger who plays poorly in the third round now has close to 24 hours to recover and stay in the hunt. Now the third-round leaders are paired for the finish so they are playing with other contenders. Under the previous format, the leader was just as likely to be playing the final round with a player far out of the picture, as well as often being far removed physically from his challengers.

Raw statistics suggest a change as well. Final-round scoring averages for the 10 years immediately after the change were almost a full stroke lower than for the last 10 years before it.

UNFORTUNATELY FOR VENTURI, THE matter of the heat, his exhaustion and the debate that ensued – and endures – in many ways detracted from what otherwise must be regarded as one of the more remarkable finishes in the history of golf. His 66-70 on Saturday not only beat runner-up (and 54-hole leader) Tommy Jacobs by four shots, his 72-hole total of 278 was just two off Hogan’s Open record set in ‘48. Additionally, Venturi’s 206 for the last three rounds set a 54-hole record, and his closing 136 tied the Open record for the final 36 holes.

Floyd called the morning 66 the “greatest round I’ve ever seen.” Floyd, who shot 72 for the round himself, said “it was so nearly perfect, it made me feel like I was shooting 90. If he had been putting super, he might have shot 59 or 60.” Venturi missed a one-foot putt at the 17th and a three-footer at the 18th and still posted 66.

Floyd’s most vivid memory of the performance, however, was of coming down the 18th hole of the fourth round, as Venturi was about to close out with a scrambling par, and the look in Venturi’s eyes when it was finally over.

“He had been one unbelievably good player, and then he had gone three or four years when he rarely ever made a cut,” Floyd said, “and here all of a sudden he’s in contention, with all these people standing up cheering for him” as he stumbled to the green.

Images. All of us who were there have them. Ronald Green Sr. of The Charlotte Observer and I had gone out to walk in with Venturi and had to fairly crawl from tree to tree, seeking shade. Brand, a walking Rules official two groups behind Venturi, remembers “thinking they were going to a funeral, they were playing so slow.” Venturi remembers spotting the dean of golf writers, Herbert Warren Wind, somewhere on the back nine of the final round dressed, as Wind always is, in a long-sleeved shirt and tie. Venturi was quoted as saying to himself, “Good Lord, people are dropping like flies and here’s a fashion plate. Herb looks worse than I feel.”

Images. The 21-year-old Floyd, just beginning his march to superstardom, watching as Venturi found the bunker with his second shot at the 72nd hole, blasted out to 10 feet and somehow made the putt for his par. Venturi loosened the grip on his putter, stretched his arms heavenward and exclaimed, “My God, I’ve won the Open.”

“I reached down and picked his ball up out of the hole,” Floyd recalls, “and when I went to give it to him I had tears in my eyes I felt so great for the guy … and when he looked at me as I handed him the ball, he started tearing.”

Images. The new Ken Venturi. No longer the brash, cocky kid who had led three rounds of the Masters eight years earlier, who had the Masters won in 1960 until Arnold Palmer birdied the last two holes, and who had 10 PGA Tour victories before hitting a prolonged slump. Wearing a humility wrought, he said, from almost three years of crushing failure, his feelings were written not in spasms of wild jubilation. Rather, he was closer to tears. The words did not come easily, and when he spoke them a great hush fell over the room where he sat for journalistic veterans who had never seen him that way before.

“I am speechless,” he said. “I can’t tell you how I feel except that I know I am very lucky to be sitting here, knowing all of the great golfers who have never won this championship.”

Images. The great Congressional course, seared first by heat from the heavens and then from the skills of Ken Venturi, stilled now and vacant. Almost as an aside, someone had to ask Venturi what he thought about the course. His keen sense of humor now emerging from the seriousness of the occasion, Venturi replied: “Best course I ever won the Open on.”

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.

Ken Venturi survived the heat and was relieved to win the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club. It was the last year of the 36-hole final day. (USGA Museum)

Ken Venturi during the final round of the 1964 U.S. Open. (USGA Museum)