May 26, 2013

Loran Smith: Venturi enjoyed moment in the sun at 1964 U.S. Open


— There were troubled days in Ken Venturi’s life, but there were also highs that were everlasting. Winning the 1964 U. S. Open at Congressional under the duress of heat prostration gave him one of the most memorable championships in that tournament’s history.

The temperature was more than 100 degrees and the humidity was in the 90s. A doctor advised that it could be life-threatening if Venturi continued playing.

We know the rest of the story.

Vernturi played the final round under a doctor’s supervision, but he won the Open. You could see him resting and recovering under a tree afterward. The TV cameras were focused on him as he was about to be interviewed. Arnold Palmer came up and offered a handshake of congratulations.

It was Palmer who had denied Venturi a green jacket at the Masters. At Augusta National in 1958, Palmer hit his tee shot on the par-3 twelfth hole into a bank behind the green. He asked for relief and was refused. He flubbed his second shot and made double-bogey.

But Palmer also played a provisional ball and made par; he later learned that officials had agreed that he was indeed entitled to relief. He won the tournament by a stroke as Venturi finished two back. Two years later in 1960, as the clubhouse leader, Venturi watched Arnold birdie the last two holes to win the 1960 Masters.

Four decades later, Venturi wrote a book about his 60 years in golf and claimed that in 1958 Palmer did not declare that he would be hitting a provisional shot on No. 12 until he had made double-bogey. Pat Summerall, Venturi’s partner for many years on CBS golf broadcasts, said that Venturi became obsessed with the issue of the 12th hole at Augusta in 1958.

But that incident happened after he had turned pro. Venturi is also remembered as the amateur who could have won the Masters in 1956. Leading after 54 holes, he scored 80 on a windy and blustery Sunday to lose to Jack Burke Jr., a crushing defeat.

“The greens were like lightning, they were so fast,” said Venturi, who three-putted six times.

There were many times over the years when I would spend time with Venturi, who was always accommodating. I would see him at Augusta and out on the tour when CBS was broadcasting PGA tournaments. I visited with him at Marco Island, Fla., where he lived most of his life until moving back to California, which was his home for the last dozen or so years before his death on May 17.

Venturi once brought up the circumstance of the provisional ball at Augusta but did not go into detail. He lamented the hand injury that ended his career left him with a short playing window of only 12 years.

Even in his last years, he took the greatest pleasure in going to the range and hitting golf balls, an exercise that dated back to his youth when he practiced alone on the back side of the golf course for a very significant reason — he was a severe stutterer.

He would hit golf shots and talk out loud. That he overcame his handicap to become a network announcer is, perhaps, a greater achievement than winning the U.S. Open.

“As a kid,” he said, “I could sing without stammering and knew there was a way for me to learn to speak without stammering.”

My files of interviews with him over the years reflect that he spoke of no regrets, but he did wonder what his career would have been like if it had not been for severe carpal tunnel syndrome. When he looked back over his career he concluded that he had the most memorable victory — the Open at Congressional — and the most memorable defeat when he lost the Masters to Burke.

You may have used the quote, often heard during Masters week: “The Masters starts on the back nine on Sunday.”

It was Venturi who first said that, a comment on network television that became part of the lexicon at Augusta.



Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.