When the first US Open was played at Congressional in 1964, it wasn’t just the toughest exam in golf, it became a real matter of life and death for the eventual champion, Ken Venturi. He survived the last year when the final day of the US Open was a grueling 36-hole test of endurance. With the temperature soaring near 104 degrees, not to mention the high humidity, Venturi lost 8 pounds and consumed 18 salt tablets on his way to beating Ray Floyd by four shots at the end of it all. 47 years later on Monday morning, Venturi, now 80, recalled that day as if it were yesterday. (I recommend reading the entire transcript.)
As he recalled his win in ’64 and those pivotal years before and following, he teared up several times, but so did I — and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. When I saw Venturi on the interview schedule, there was no way I was going to miss his presser. I practically learned how to play golf watching his instructional videos circa 1993. My step-dad would force me to watch them on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but after a while, I started to enjoy them. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was those videos that actually got me interested in golf — to the point where I actually wanted to take lessons.
When Venturi won at Congressional, it was the longest par-70 in the history of the US Open, measuring 7,050 yards. This year at the 111th US Open in 2011, the maximum length will be around 7,350 yards, but obviously these days we have the benefit of modern technology.
“In 1964 I was No. 1 in driving accuracy, and I was 16th in overall driving distance, and I drove it 249 yards,” said Venturi. “I was just watching players at the 10th hole, playing 218 yards and Bubba Watson just hit a six-iron. In my day, that was a good 4-wood for 218.
“But it’s nice to come back and the memories I have here and everything. To show you how fate has it, we didn’t bring our own caddies then; we had a draw then. When I drew William Ward, who was the No. 1 caddie at Congressional, if there was some fate there that might have been it. So that told you something.”
Venturi recanted the final hole. He hit a 4-iron on his second shot. And he knew he was leading because he could see that he was the only player in red figures on the scoreboard. His knock-down 4-iron kicked right and found the bunker.
“And then I made the putt and it was something that I’ll always treasure,” said Venturi.
“But to come back here and reminisce, I’ve been treated just royally. It’s really been an honor. Not rudeness to anybody, but if I had to pick a place to win the US Open Championship, it would be at Congressional in our nation’s capital, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Venturi’s incredible victory came during a stretch of four years without a win. He was in a bad car accident in 1961, where he was nearly thrown out the door. Following the misfortune, Venturi endured a “big slump.” But he never gave excuses.
“My father always taught me that,” said Venturi. “Excuses are the crutches for the untalented. And I never made excuses at how I was playing. I was broken.”
Had Venturi not received an invite to Westchester, which took place two weeks before the US Open, he considered returning to the Bay Area to sell cars. Yeah, it was that bad. Though his doctor suggested he not play the Open, telling him it could be fatal, but Venturi replied, “It’s better than the way I’ve been living.”
Venturi never dreamed of winning another major like he had the US Open.
“And when you talk about the titles, you can have all the titles, the other ones have had 14 and stuff, but when you are the United States Open champion, that’s the best. And that’s what I always dreamt about.”
Venturi called the 18th hole (which truly is awesome) “one of the premier finishing holes in all of golf.” Again, he retold playing the hole so vividly and poignantly.
“And the gallery, you know, 25,000 there, and the applause was deafening, from the time I hit my tee shot,” said Venturi. “And then after I hit my second shot it was the first time I took my hat off to acknowledge the gallery. And there was no yelling, no screaming; the applause was deafening. And it went on until I hit the bunker shot and then I hit my putt at the 18th hole.
“And it was going to miss on the right and broke left a little bit and went in the hole, and that’s when I dropped my putter and raised my hands up, which you see the picture so many times, and I said, ‘My God, I won The Open.’
“It was just…and the thing about it is that I I didn’t reach over to pick the ball out of the hole. And Raymond Floyd, 21-year-old boy, picked the ball out of the hole for me. When he put it in my hands and I looked back, the young man was crying, and I lost it, then, too. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Not long after his improbable win, Venturi’s career was cut short when he was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists. His doctor told him the surgery was risky and he may lose three fingers because of gangrene. Venturi felt his whole world had been turned upside down.
“My father took me to the airport, and I told him, I said, ‘Dad, the doctor said I may lose these three fingers and I may never play golf again,'” said Venturi, fighting back emotion.
His father gave him a hug and said, “‘Son, it makes no difference if you ever play golf again.’ I said, ‘How could you say that, Dad?’
“He says, ‘Because, Son, you were the best I ever saw.'”
The last time Venturi played Congressional was in June of 1964. He’s been asked to present the trophy to this year’s US Open champion.