SI Vault
Alfred Wright
June 29, 1964
Fighting off the world's best golfers and heat exhaustion, the once-great Ken Venturi halts a three-year slide to oblivion with a dazzling performance that won the U.S. Open Championship in Washington
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June 29, 1964

'poor Ken' Hits It Rich Again

Fighting off the world's best golfers and heat exhaustion, the once-great Ken Venturi halts a three-year slide to oblivion with a dazzling performance that won the U.S. Open Championship in Washington

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Last summer he seriously considered quitting golf and finding a profession elsewhere. He kept practicing, however, and among those he played with was Father Francis Murray, a priest with a parish in Burlingame near Ken's home. Father Murray concentrated on the part of Venturi's game that needed the most work—his state of mind. Slowly he built a more relaxed and philosophical attitude in a mind that had been as jumpy as popcorn in a skillet.

On Wednesday of last week Venturi received a letter from Father Murray, and it meant a great deal to him. "He told me," Venturi said later, "that you have to keep your composure, that you should never let anything great get you too elated and that you should never let anything bad get you down. He said you should just keep an even pace and just ask God to let you do the best you can. Believe me, when I get home I'm going to split the trophy right down the middle and put half in my house and half in Father Murray's parish."

On Thursday morning, play in the 64th U.S. Open began, and a hundred letters from Father Murrays would not have convinced anybody to follow Ken Venturi, even though he had been scoring quite well recently. Because of its length, and the fact that Washington's tropical sun had broiled much of the once-vaunted Open rough down to brown, harmless hay, the only question was which of golf's hardest hitters—Palmer, Nicklaus or Tony Lema—would win. Palmer seemed to settle that at once with a brisk 68 that sent his gallery bellowing across the hills and dissenters muttering that this was going to be another runaway like the recent Masters, where Arnold might as well have played alone.

Then, on Friday, occurred the sort of improbable happening that makes sport sporting. Tommy Jacobs, one of the most likable and least known among the very good younger pros, shot a 64. On another golf course Jacobs' performance could have been accepted with a reasonable amount of awe. To shoot such a round at Congressional must be regarded as superlative, if not unbelievable, golf. "He must have been cheating," Arnold Palmer said jokingly. "Which holes did he leave out?" asked Claude Harmon, who insisted that the course should really be considered a par-73 because most of the players were unable to reach two or three of the par-4 holes with their two best shots. "It was the finest round of golf I have ever seen," said old Dutch Harrison, who was in the same pairing with Tommy and is a voice worth listening to, since he has played in more professional tournaments than any golfer in history.

It was an outrageous thing for Jacobs to do. The only other man to shoot 64 in a U.S. Open was an unemployed pro named Lee Mackey, who did it in 1950 and went into such a trance that he had an 81 the following day. One measure of Jacobs' round is the fact that there were only eight scores below 70 in all four rounds at Congressional. As with the description of all miracles—once you have written that the Red Sea parted, what do you say after that?—the 64 should simply be allowed to stand without further words.

In addition to the stir it caused in its own right, the 64 gave Jacobs the lead in the tournament. One stroke behind was Palmer, who had a 69. Jacobs left the course early, pausing at the clubhouse door for a bewildered, "Who's that?" as Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon drove up behind a police escort. The secretary, presumably, soon knew who Jacobs was.

Lema, meanwhile, was in with a lackluster 71-72, and Jack Nicklaus, at 72-73, was having his problems, too. He could not sink a putt and could hardly get a drink. Pepsi-Cola was the only soft drink sold on the course, and it came in red-white-and-blue Pepsi cups. Nicklaus endorses Coke, so he was having his Pepsis poured into beer cups. "No wonder he can't putt," said one outraged follower. "That's his fourth beer this nine." (Nicklaus eventually was to score only one birdie in the last 54 holes. "That's not my kind of golf," he said. It is the kind that finishes in 23rd place. Lema was to do little better, ending up 20th.)

Finally, by sunset Friday there was a kind of condescending pleasure in noting that Poor Ken was having such a nice tournament, his 72-70 putting him in a tie for fourth, six strokes behind Jacobs.

Saturday's sunrise found USGA officials out on the course placing cups in the hardest imaginable positions. Nobody was going to shoot a 64 in their tournament again. In two hours the temperature was 75�, and 36 holes were about to begin that would decide whether Jacobs or Palmer would be the new Open champion.

The opinion was nearly universal that Palmer would devour Jacobs like an hors d'oeuvre as the two of them played head to head. Speculation began as to whether Arnold would be able to win the British Open three weeks hence and then the PGA on the week after that for the first Grand Slam of pro golf.

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