An oppressive heat wave scorched Congressional Country Club on June 20 of the 1964 U.S. Open Championship. If Ken Venturi were to prevail in Bethesda, Md., he would have to overcome not only a two-shot deficit heading into the final round, but also survive 100-degree temperatures.
The U.S. Open in 1964 required golfers to play both the third and fourth round on the same day. Venturi shot a 66 in the morning session to put himself in great position for his first major championship, after many earlier disappointments. But Venturi was already suffering symptoms of dehydration. Dr. John E. Everett, a Congressional member, treated Venturi and told him that with the possibility further dehydration and possible heat stroke, it was best to quit, saying, “to continue might be fatal.”
“My God, I’ve won the Open.”
“I have to admit, my getting sick and dehydrated was my own fault,” Venturi said in an interview with Golf Digest in 2004. “In the morning, I was so focused on playing I didn’t take one drink of water. In the end, I beat a tough golf course and a great field, but I also overcame my own mistakes.”
When it was over, Venturi’s score of 2-under 278 was the only red figure in the field. Runner-up Tommy Jacobs finished four strokes back. For his efforts, Venturi received the “Sportsman of the Year” award by Sports Illustrated and the PGA Player of the Year award.
Famously, Venturi elected to go on and went back out on the course with the doctor and several USGA officials in tow. He shot an even-par 70 despite being severely dehydrated, partly because he took 18 salt tablets that afternoon. Venturi almost collapsed, but he survived. As the last putt dropped, Venturi was heard to exclaim, “My God, I’ve won the Open.”
Venturi was born in San Francisco on May 15, 1931. Trained to play golf at an early age, he developed his game at Harding Park Golf Course, which hosted the 2009 Presidents Cup. Venturi was a tremendous amateur player, winning the California State Amateur Championship, held at Pebble Beach Golf Links, in 1951 and 1956. He also served in the U.S. Army in Korea. Golfing legends Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan befriended and influenced a young Venturi as his game evolved.
The talented amateur gained national attention at the 1956 Masters Tournament, won by Jackie Burke Jr. The 24-year-old Venturi ascended to the top of the leaderboard with a first-round 66 and then a 69 in the second. Venturi led by four strokes as the final round began, but shot 80. He finished just one stroke behind Burke, who set a Masters record by rallying from eight shots back entering the final day.
A much brighter spot came the next year, when Venturi won his first PGA TOUR event – the 1957 Saint Paul Open Invitational. He also prevailed at the 1958 Thunderbird Invitational, the 1959 Los Angeles Open and the 1960 Milwaukee Open Invitational.
Venturi and celebrated amateur Harvie Ward played as an amateur team against Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson at Cypress Point Golf Club in 1956 in a famous duel now known as “The Match.”
Venturi’s lone Ryder Cup appearance came in 1965, when the United States defeated Great Britain & Ireland, 19 ½-12 ½ at Royal Birkdale, in England. Venturi and partner Tony Lema secured a critical 1-up victory over Bernard Hunt and Neil Coles on Day 2 in the afternoon four-balls.
Venturi’s talent was undeniable, but his body failed him. Carpel Tunnel Syndrome in his hands made it impossible to continue on the course, and Venturi was forced to retire with 14 career PGA TOUR victories.
That of course, was just the beginning of Venturi’s second act in the game. He joined the CBS Sports television team in 1968. He spent the next 35 years as a color commentator and lead analyst. At Augusta National Golf Club, Venturi worked alongside Byron Nelson, Pat Summerall, Ed Ingles and Jim Nantz. In 1984, CBS reached a milestone when, for the first time, it showed coverage of all 18 holes for the Masters. During his Masters tenure, Venturi called the action at two very famous holes – the par-5 13th and the par-4 18th.
“Kenny sounded like he was in your living room,” said Nantz, who joined CBS in the mid-1980s and began anchoring the network’s coverage in 1995. “He was very conversational. He’s been a very dear friend.”
Venturi’s straightforward, everyman style in the booth made him popular with fans. As his career grew, he became one of the game’s most respected voices.
In 1998, Venturi received the Old Tom Morris Award, the most prestigious honor given by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. Two years later, he received the PGA of America Lifetime Achievement in Journalism Award. Venturi also captained the United States to a 21 ½-10 ½ victory in the 2000 Presidents Cup, held at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va.
Venturi is famous for the 1964 U.S. Open, for being buddies with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and for 35 years, being the voice of golf in America’s living room. He created one truly iconic golfing life, both on and off the course.