Disaster struck almost at once. His first 1964 tournament was the Los Angeles Open, and he missed the cut. As if that were not enough, he received a phone call from Jantzen, Inc. during the tournament informing him his contract to endorse the company's swimsuits and sweaters was terminated, a contract that had been quite lucrative to him. He missed the cut again two weeks later at the Crosby and again at Palm Springs. "I knew it wasn't physical," he says. "It was just that when I had to hit an important shot I was backing away from it, I was scared of it. I went home to practice some more, and I told Conni then: 'It's mental.' Then I returned to the tour, and in March at Pensacola, I won $1,100. It was my first four-figure check in two years.
"Even so, I backed off a few times when I had a big shot. I was frightened, but it wasn't as bad as before. The next week I missed the cut at St. Petersburg, and the week after that I had to plead for an invitation to Doral. They finally let me play. I won $950 and, believe me, I really needed that money. When I left Doral, I went up to Crystal River, Fla., where there is a country club I was still representing on the tour, and waited for my invitation to the Masters. While I was there I found out that Dave Marr and Phil Rodgers had been invited, and I knew there had been only two invitations left. I was not being asked to the Masters. That was the killer. I had almost won the Masters as an amateur in 1956. I nearly had it won again in 1960. I had believed I would always be invited to the Masters. 'This is the bottom of the bottom of the barrel,' I thought. Another quarter of an inch lower and I would be out in the dirt."
Still, Venturi did not give up. Back home, he was playing a round one day with Ed Lowery, a local Lincoln-Mercury dealer who has been a kind of 16th century patron to Venturi's golf ever since young Ken won the San Francisco city championship at the age of 17. On two occasions that day Venturi hit fairway woods better than he had in years. Lowery said nothing at the time but took him out to the 5th hole for some practice afterwards. He told Venturi to hit medium iron shots at a rake in the middle of a bunker well down the fairway. Three out of the six shots struck the rake, and the others missed by inches. Lowery then put a driver in Ken's hands and told him to swing exactly as he had when he hit the six-iron. Two faultless shots left the club and traveled 15 yards farther than Ken had been driving the ball for a long time.
These shots enabled Lowery to prove to Venturi once and for all what he had been doing wrong: he had been aiming his hips to the left to get a draw that would give him more distance, while keeping his shoulders aimed to the right to try and prevent a real hook. This had been an idea of his own, one that he had started to work on in 1960 when the specter of Palmer and Arnie's long drives began to bother him. Ken, convinced by what Lowery had demonstrated for him, began positioning himself squarely to the ball when he was set to drive, just as he had done in the days of his many victories.
A week later he went to Fort Worth to play in the Colonial National Invitation and found himself paired with Ben Hogan. Taciturn as always, Hogan spoke scarcely a word to Venturi until the end of their third round together. What he said then was brief: "Ken, what happened to your hook?" For Hogan, that was an oration on the change in Ken's style.
From then on, all Venturi needed was the courage to hit the ball properly under pressure, to "try not to steer it." He set his sights on the $100,000 Thunderbird Classic in the first week of June. Once again it was a matter of begging his way in. "It was awful," he remembers. "The week before I had played at Indianapolis and I missed the cut by one stroke. Missing the cut meant I wasn't automatically eligible for the Thunderbird.
"That night I called Bill Jennings, the Thunderbird general chairman, to ask if he could help me get an invitation to the tournament. I knew there was one spot still open, and I told him, 'Bill, I really need this. I really believe I'm ready. If I go home now, I'll never be back on the tour. You've got to help me.' The year before at the Thunderbird I shot an 80 on the first round and got disgusted and left, so they certainly didn't owe me anything. I was scared to death they wouldn't let me in. Jennings said he would see what he could do and would call me back the next morning. I didn't sleep at all that night. The next day Bill called and said I was getting the last invitation.
"Well, on the final round I was in a position to win the tournament, and when I got to the par-3 16th on Sunday I knew that if I parred in I would finish at least third and pick up a big check. I thought about Conni, and I thought about the money and how badly we needed it. I could play the shot safe with a four-iron and make a sure bogey, or I could go for the pin with a three-iron and maybe make a birdie, but if I didn't hit it right it was going to cost me a lot of money. I said to myself, 'If you back off now, you'll back off the rest of your life.' So I took the three-iron and hit a great shot to the green and two-putted for my par. Then I birdied the 17th and almost birdied the 18th and finished in a tie for third with Casper.
"As soon as I could get to a phone, I called Conni and said I'd won $6,250. We both sat on the phone and cried. We couldn't even talk."
If you look back on the life of Ken Venturi—back through the long string of good years—you see a man who never could have dreamed that he would find himself crying with joy over a third-place finish; he had too much promise, too glorious a future for that. Yet you also see a man whose whole adult life has been punctuated by controversy and drama. He attracts these things, as some men attract violence or wealth or loyalty. It is odd that this should be so, for Venturi's life has had all the outward fixtures of success. He is a handsome man of 33 with thick, wavy dark hair that is beginning to be salted with gray. His 6-foot frame carries 170 pounds of springy muscle. He has a wife whom other men view with envy. Conni, at the age of 30, is tall and striking, stylish and friendly. They have been married for 10 years, and she has borne him two handsome sons—Matthew, 8, and towheaded Timmy, who is 5. They live in a comfortable California ranch house on a wooded hillside in Hillsborough, the most expensive and exclusive suburb of San Francisco. Their cars are a Lincoln Continental convertible and a Mercury station wagon. They have friends galore in the San Francisco area, many of them in show business. And—once he got started as a golfer—none of this was earned with difficulty, at least in terms of man's usual struggle for success.