When Ken Venturi (see cover) won the U.S Open golf championship in Washington late last Saturday afternoon, it was as if everyone suddenly wanted to drive an Edsel instead of a Cadillac or as if Dick Nixon were President. It was as if they took all the guys down on Skid Row and put them in charge of the big banks. It was a day for losers everywhere, because, for the best part of three years now, Ken Venturi has been a loser's loser.
Golf players have turned out to be the movie stars of the decade. The idolaters want their autographs, they get the best tables at "21" and the Pump Room, and Ed Sullivan books them like Beatles. That was the way it was for Ken Venturi in the closing years of the Eisenhower Administration—golden years when he was going to be the next Ben Hogan, when there was no matching his confidence or his glamour or his prospects. Then all of a moment he could not hit the golf ball straight anymore. A moment after that he had disappeared.
The crowds chased people with names like Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, and when Ken made one of his infrequent appearances in a tournament he played in quiet oblivion. A man who once won $41,230 in a year, he earned only $3,848 in 1963. He received no invitation to play in the Masters this year, a kind of fierce and final blow because he has long been a great favorite of golf sentimentalists at that tournament. Twice, in 1956 and 1960, he had the Masters won, only to lose it each time in spirit-breaking fashion—once by shooting a last-round 80, and once by having Arnold Palmer sink birdie putts on 17 and 18. Now he was not even able to play there. He had become a nobody lost in the shadows.
On Saturday at Congressional Country Club he stepped into the sun again, and what sun! It was a day of 100� temperatures and salt tablets and dizzy spells and doctors in the steamy caldron that is Washington in June. Heat exhaustion was a constant threat to Venturi, and at times it seemed he would never be able to walk up to where his ball lay. But when he got there, he lashed at his shots with almost furious intent, and there was nobody on the record-long (7,053 yard) Congressional course that day who could match his efforts. By 6:45 p.m. the Palmers et al had shot themselves into nowhere, while a staggering but relentless Ken Venturi posted a 66-70 for the day and a total of 278 to win a fantasy-filled Open.
When Venturi's final putt went in, a roar of approval sounded through the natural valley that cradles Congressional's 18th hole, and it came in large measure from a group that only an hour before had been properly known as Arnie's Army—an army now willing to follow another general. "Until the last holes," Venturi said later, "I just had Arnie's outcasts, but those cats out there were solid supporters. The last few years all I've had were Venturi's vultures."
The more he thought about it, the more Venturi's spirits rose following the first solemn and overwhelming emotions of victory. Hustled to the traditional press conference, he looked at the reporters in front of him and cracked: "The last time I saw any of you guys was when you were interviewing me at the 1960 Masters and someone yelled 'Palmer!' and you all ran out of the room and left me there sipping my Coke."
He talked about the 12 salt tablets a doctor had given him on the course during the afternoon round and said, "I think they must have been lead. They all went right to my feet. But I better not say anymore about that. Everybody's endorsing things nowadays, and maybe I can endorse salt tablets."
Then he turned serious again. "If I had to do everything all over again and write a script or a book about it, I wouldn't change one thing that happened to me in my life. Nine months ago I was about to quit, and I didn't know what was going to happen. I've tasted the bitterness of defeat, and now I'm going to taste the sweetness of success."
Bitter is a fair enough word for what Venturi calls "the three long years when I went from the top to the bottom of the barrel." The decline became critical on a February day in Palm Springs in 1962. Ken was playing in the pro-amateur tournament there, and as he leaned over to pick his ball out of the cup he felt something snap in his spine. The pain was very sharp and refused to go away, so he had to withdraw from the tournament. In fact, it was some weeks before he could rejoin the tour. Even then he had to have daily heat treatments and massages to remove the strain and stiffness. His golf swing was restricted, and no doubt he should have rested until he was sound again. But pro golfers like to keep going. It is not just that they need the money to eat. When they are on top, as Venturi was, their status in their profession depends on how much money they win, so they often keep playing when they should be nursing their ailments.
The more he played with his back hurting, the more Venturi had to alter his swing. Pretty soon that swing, one which Byron Nelson had helped to mold into the most classical on the tour, was entirely gone and, at the age of 31, Venturi seemed to be washed up. He had a lot of friends who tried to help and countless others who wished him well. Many a golfing conversation started with: "What has happened to poor Ken?" Poor Ken and his wife Conni, one of the beauties among the golfers' wives, were about the only ones who would not admit he was through. Ken stuck doggedly to the tour in 1962, but throughout much of last year he stayed home in Hillsborough, Calif., a San Francisco suburb, and tried to remake his golf game. Now and then he would feel some confidence and attempt a tournament or two, but it was no go.