On Wednesday night, the eve of the U.S. Open, Venturi decided he would like to spend a few minutes in church. He and Conni found the nearby Catholic church locked, but through a window Ken saw a priest sitting in the rectory office, and he rang the bell. The priest opened the door for the Venturis, turned on the lights, and Ken remembers praying "not for anything specific, like a victory. I was just asking God to please give me faith in myself."
On Thursday morning Venturi teed off early in a pairing with George Bayer and Billy Maxwell. Two practice rounds had given him nothing but respect for the Congressional course. "It was the longest and toughest thing I ever saw," Ken says. "I had already decided that a 285 would have to win it. It was such a tough course that you didn't dare back off a shot. I was pretty pleased when I shot a 72."
After finishing his round he collected some mail that was waiting for him. It included a letter from Father Francis Kevin Murray, then an assistant pastor at the St. Vincent de Paul church in the Marina district of San Francisco, who had taken an interest in Ken. "I could tell the troubles Ken was going through," says the priest, "sort of like reading between the lines. He didn't say anything, but I knew pretty much how he felt. Sometimes when Ken was away, I would send him a telegram just to let him know I was thinking of him and appreciated our friendship, that I believed he could succeed."
Father Murray's letter—six pages long—said, among many things, "I truly think you are ready.... You are at peace with yourself. You respect yourself. You are truly the new Ken Venturi, born out of suffering and turmoil but now wise and mature and battle-toughened."
"When I got the message clearly fixed in my mind," Ken says, "I began to realize what had been making me back off. I felt now that after two years of trouble I really was at last wise and mature and battle-toughened. I felt at peace with myself, and I felt I could cope with anything."
Venturi shot a splendid even-par 70 on his second round, but his fourth-place standing was obscured by the almost unbelievable round of 64 that Tommy Jacobs came in with on the same day. Anyway, people had long since written off Ken Venturi as the likely winner of a big championship. Ken trailed Jacobs by six strokes and Arnold Palmer by five, but as he arrived at the club early Saturday morning he told a friend, "I feel great." He must have, for the score he shot on Saturday morning through the first nine holes of one of the most difficult courses ever to entertain a major championship looks, in retrospect, as if it might have been dreamed rather than played—3-3-4-3-3-4-3-3-4—five birdies and four pars for a 30. Instead of backing off shots he was ramming even the longest irons over the edges of Congressional's big traps and right to the pin. Some of the shots were so risky that ever-bold Arnold Palmer played them a little safe. It seemed lunacy not to. But Venturi hit for the pins like a golfer gone berserk. Birdie followed birdie. The temperature was over 100� as Ken began the second nine holes. Having eaten very little breakfast and having neglected to take any salt tablets, he soon became dehydrated. With three holes still to play in his morning round, he began to suffer from heat prostration. His hands shook, and he could scarcely hold his putter. Even so, he needed only pars on the 17th and 18th holes to tie Jacobs' course record of the day before. He bogeyed each, however, missing a four-foot putt at the 18th, but his exceptional 66 had brought him within two strokes of Jacobs, who was still the leader.
Ken was too ill to eat any lunch. A doctor was summoned, and he made Venturi lie down in the rear of the locker room while restoring the liquid in his system with the aid of salt and iced tea. He played the last 18 holes accompanied by a doctor carrying a thermos of iced tea, and with towels dipped in ice water around his neck. Few people who knew Venturi's condition thought he would be able to complete his afternoon round. When Conni was asked by reporters in the press room if she thought he could make it, she replied, "If he doesn't, he'll die trying."
"She was right," Ken said later. "Literally, I was going to make it if I had to die in the effort. If I didn't make it I was out of golf. I had failed too often before. That last round became my whole life."
Venturi cannot yet describe that last 18 holes on Saturday afternoon in a normal tone of voice. "The 66 in the morning was great and all that," he says, "but the 70 in the afternoon overshadowed it a thousand times. I really never knew where I was. Like a robot, I just kept going going, going. The pin at the end of each hole looked like a telephone pole. All I could see was that pin. I would just keep moving from the tee to the ball to the green. The ball kept on going straight and I would follow it.
"At the end of the 9th hole, where I sank a birdie putt, Joe Dey said to me, 'There's the scoreboard over there if you want to know how you stand,' and I said, 'Joe, I don't want to know.'