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PROUD WORDS
Michael Bamberger
June 09, 1997
Ken Venturi, the 1964 Open champion, has faced life's ups and downs by following his father's commandments
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June 09, 1997

Proud Words

Ken Venturi, the 1964 Open champion, has faced life's ups and downs by following his father's commandments

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Snead it would be. Snead was quiet. He didn't encourage the amateur, and he didn't ignore him. He simply went about his business—while Venturi collapsed. When Venturi returned home, Harry Heyward, a sportswriter for The San Francisco Examiner, asked Venturi about playing with Snead and wrote a story in which he quoted Venturi as saying he would've played better had he been paired with someone else.

Eddie Lowery—a well-known San Francisco auto dealer and high-stakes golfer who earned a permanent place in golf lore as Francis Ouimet's pint-sized caddie in the 1913 U.S. Open—was Venturi's patron and counselor. Lowery took it upon himself to write a letter of apology, in Venturi's name, to Jones and Roberts, for any embarrassment the newspaper story may have caused Augusta National and its members.

Venturi says he never saw the letter, never approved the letter, never signed the letter. Four decades later he's still fuming about the newspaper story, which he believes intentionally misrepresented his views, and about the letter of apology he feels should never have been written. "Harry Heyward's long dead," Venturi says, "but I still don't forgive him."

You don't have to he better than everybody else, you just have to be better than you ever thought you could be.

Venturi closes his eyes, bringing to mind pictures from his past. Here's Jack Nicklaus poolside at the Governor's Motel, near Congressional, during the week of the 1964 U.S. Open, swimming while wearing a Rolex watch. There's Herb Wind, the golf writer, standing beside a tree on the 12th tee of the final round of Venturi's Open, wearing a necktie in a sweltering midday stew. Here's Joe Dey, the executive secretary of the USGA, urging Venturi to stand tall, as Venturi walks, shoulders slumped and at a funereal pace, down the final fairway, victory just a bunker shot and a putt away.

Venturi won the '64 Open—the final Open with a 36-hole Saturday finish—by shooting 66 before lunch and 70 in the afternoon in 100° heat. As his round neared completion, the only remaining drama lay in whether Venturi would collapse before he finished. Tommy Jacobs finished second, four shots back.

When Venturi won the Open, he was nearly broke, his first marriage was slowly dissolving, and most everyone thought he was through. His early career had been brilliant. From 1957, his rookie year on Tour, through 1960, Venturi won 10 events. In his first five years on Tour his money rankings were 10th, 3rd, 10th, 2nd and 14th. Then came his barren period: In 1962 and 1963 he didn't win enough to pay his caddie fees or motel bills. By May '64 he was thinking about becoming a teaching pro. Then came June. He wasn't better than Arnold Palmer or Nicklaus, or even Gary Player or Billy Casper. But he was better than he ever thought he would be. A couple of years later he was better than he ever thought he would be for a second time.

After the Open, Venturi won twice more before the end of the season. He won Player of the Year honors and was named SI's Sportsman of the Year. But in 1965 his hands went dead on him, and he won just $295 on Tour. His hands had virtually no color or strength. Often they shook uncontrollably. There were times when he could not tee up a ball, let alone swing at it. His fingers swelled and he had to saw off his wedding ring. He was prescribed large doses of painkillers, then had violent episodes during which he would turn rooms upside-down as he went through withdrawal.

In June 1965, immediately after the Open at Bellerive in St. Louis—where he shot 81 and 79, missing the cut by 11 shots—he underwent major surgery on both hands for an extreme case of carpal tunnel syndrome caused by hitting thousands of practice balls. Seven months later Venturi won his 14th and final Tour event, the 1966 Lucky International, played at Harding Park, the public course in San Francisco where he had learned the game and where his father, who had retired from the rope-and-twine business, now worked in the pro shop.

Venturi didn't do much on the golf course after that. He didn't need to.

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