Watching Ken Venturi stagger through heat exhaustion and dehydration to win the 1964 U.S. Open is one of my strongest memories of TV sports viewing. Venturi's victory at Congressional Country Club cemented my love for golf and the Open, which I have watched every year since. While I adored Arnold Palmer, Venturi and his heroic victory made him one of my favorite golfers. Venturi's death Friday at age 82 marked the passing of another childhood hero.
Wearing a white shirt, gray pants and Ben Hogan-style snap-down cap, Venturi endured 36 holes on the tournament's final day, as had every other Open champion. As Venturi battled severe dehydration, a doctor advised him not to play the Saturday afternoon final round in 100-degree heat. He pressed on, consuming candy bars and placing wet towels upon his neck, to shoot a 70 in a performance he said he couldn't even remember, although he knew on the final green that he had won the open, his childhood dream growing up in a working class home in San Francisco, handicapped by a severe stutter. His winning the championship while risking possible death remains the greatest sports performance I've seen.
Citing the threat to Venturi, the USGA changed the tournament to an 18-hole final round on Sunday, although cynics thought the shift was more to meet TV network demands than to protect golfers. Whatever, watching every shot of the open's Sunday final round has been my Father's Day tradition.
I also associate Venturi with the Masters, from his years of broadcasting the tournament for CBS, especially with the great Pat Summerall, who also died this year. While reverential about the tournament, Summerall and Venturi held back from the obsequious excesses of current CBS announcer Jim Nance. Venturi's commentary was exact, brusque, and pointed, in contrast to Nick Faldo's self-referential flights.
Before winning the Open, Venturi had fallen short of expectations after turning pro following a sensational amateur career. The Masters was one of his major disappointments. As an amateur, he'd led the tournament for 54 holes before blowing to a final round 80. After joining the PGA tour, Venturi finished second to Palmer in the 1960 Masters, when Palmer received a favorable ruling that Venturi considered unfair. Palmer was not penalized for removing an embedded ball, giving him a narrow win.
Venturi was a main figure in one of the best sports books I've read this year, Mark Frost's "The Match," which tells the story of a best ball competition that Venturi and fellow amateur Harvie Ward played against professional greats Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson in 1956 at Cypress Point in Carmel, Calif. While the book doesn't justify its subtitle, "the day the game of golf changed forever," it presents a wealth of golf lore. Venturi idolized Hogan, copying his clothing style and exacting approach to golf, and received lessons from Nelson. Nelson's instruction brought Venturi's game to a world-class level.
I remember a Sports Illustrated profile of Venturi that presented him as the stylish, savvy exemplar of post-war American manhood. His blazer and gray slacks, martini and cigarettes cool, sardonic wit and rugged good looks defined him as one of the greats of a vanished era. Ken Venturi's name and personality will always glow in my memory.