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Survival Course

Golf: Venturi won the 1964 Open at Congressional with a memorable 36-hole finish that he can't remember.

June 12, 1997|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHESDA, Md. — Here on this side of the Potomac, Tuesday was a typically warm June day at Congressional Country Club. But it wasn't at all like that steamy day in 1964, when it was hot enough to melt sand in a bunker and Ken Venturi staggered home to win the U.S. Open.

Nothing could stop Venturi at Congressional 33 years ago. Not 95-degree temperatures, not 95% humidity, not playing 36 holes on the last day and not a case of dehydration so bad that Venturi nearly passed out.

Venturi was so overcome by the conditions, he doesn't remember what happened. His only memories of the last day are the ones others have told him.

But on this day, there is nothing wrong with Venturi's memory, only with what he is thinking about. While Venturi ought to be enjoying the defining moment in his life in golf, he cannot.

Venturi doesn't feel like celebrating right now, not with his wife, Beau, so sick with cancer. The doctors have said Beau Venturi has an inoperable brain tumor and the Venturis have called in a hospice for help.

So when the 1997 U.S. Open begins at Congressional, the scene of his greatest triumph, Venturi's mood will be decidedly mixed.

"You know, the U.S. Open 33 years later, I'm glad it passed my way," he said. "Of course, my priorities now have changed with my wife being ill.

"I think I have to be home . . . it's a very important time. That's what comes first now . . . it's just too tough."

Maybe that is what pushes Venturi now, the tough times, as always. Even when he won at Congressional in 1964, he wasn't supposed to.

Venturi had won 10 tournaments by 1960, but he hurt his neck and back in a car accident in 1961 and his career went into a tailspin. He played in 54 events in the next two years and finished in the top five only once.

In 1963, Venturi won $3,848.

At 32, Venturi was washed up, or so it seemed to many. He stayed at home in Hillsborough in the Bay Area and worked hard on his golf, hoping he could come back.

After all, Venturi was well acquainted with disappointment. He was on his way to becoming the first amateur to win the Masters in 1956 when he led by four shots on the last day, but finished with an 80 and lost to Jack Burke by a stroke.

In the 1958 Masters, Venturi was one shot off the lead with eight holes to go and finished fourth. And in the 1960 Masters, Venturi lost by a shot when Arnold Palmer birdied the last two holes.

Venturi's preparation for the 1964 U.S. Open began when he begged the tournament director at Westchester for an invitation. Venturi got one, then finished third. When he finished fifth at the Buick, Venturi felt good enough about his golf to try to qualify for the Open field. He succeeded.

Congressional was waiting. The Washington area was having one of its driest months of June. At Congressional, sprinklers kept the fairways alive. In the locker room, there were warnings about the heat and humidity as well as suggestions to drink plenty of water and take salt tablets.

Venturi arrived with new-found confidence and a letter from a friend of his, a priest, in his pocket. Father Francis Murray, who sometimes played golf with Venturi, urged him to persevere at the Open.

Venturi, Murray said in the letter, could become a symbol of overcoming adversity.

The letter said, in part:

"For many, there is a pressing temptation to give up, to quit trying. Life at times simply seems to be too much, its demands overpowering.

"If you should win, Ken, you would prove, I believe, to millions everywhere that they, too, can be victorious over doubt, misfortune and despair."

In 1964, the Open was decided on Saturday with the final 36 holes to be played, the last year that format was used. It was a grueling regimen even under the most benign conditions, much less the oppressive heat and humidity on that third Saturday in June 1964.

Venturi began the last day six shots behind the leader, Tommy Jacobs.

But it took only nine holes for Venturi to catch up. Venturi made the turn in 30, but he began to falter on the back because of the heat. He bogeyed the last two holes.

"When I got to the 17th green, I stopped sweating, my hands started shaking and I just kind of stood there," Venturi said.

After the first 18 holes, Jacobs still led by two shots over Venturi, whose friends were worried that he might not be able to play in the afternoon.

Venturi was so far gone, he remembered almost nothing.

"I don't remember getting into the car, I don't remember going into the locker room, I don't remember leaving the clubhouse and I don't remember going to the first tee for the last round," Venturi said.

He also didn't remember how he looked in the locker room between rounds. Venturi was unable to talk, his face was drawn and pale and he slumped on a bench. He had not taken any precautions for the heat . . . no water, no salt, no nothing.

"I'm from California, what did I know about salt tablets?" Venturi said.

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