Ken Venturi Known As Analyst, But Showed Heroics As Golfer
By Phil Jackman
This is a golf story -- but don't give up on it yet.
Usually, in sports, you don't ascribe rough and tough, blood and guts macho-type behavior to golfers. Leave that to linebackers, wrestlers, race-car drivers and hockey players who can't do much else but fight.
Still, on occasion …
We begin our tale nearly 50 years ago, following a Friday-night game at the old ballyard (Memorial Stadium). A couple of us were figuring out what to do before the next evening's game when one mentioned the U.S. Open Golf Championship was being staged in nearby Washington, D.C. The die was cast.
What made the idea not such a good one -- besides the 6 a.m. wakeup call -- was the impending bus ride to D.C. and remembering the Open ended with a 36-hole double round in them days. Also, the prediction was that temperatures would be in the mid-90s. The humidity, of course, would be obscene.
The bus dropped us off at the players' hotel (The Shoreham), and, almost immediately, there was golfer Chi-Chi Rodriguez climbing into a courtesy car headed for the Congressional Country Club. We hitched a ride. Not only that, Rodriguez gave us a couple of participants' passes, which gave us the run of the joint.
Like everyone back then, we figured to wait around for tournament co-leader Arnold Palmer to tee off and tag along with him. We should have gone with the plan. Instead, we talked the first hole with Ken Venturi, and, on the green, he dropped a putt from about 12 feet that agonizingly hung on the lip for seconds before dropping.
My companion, an expert in such matters, said: "I got a feeling. Let's stick with Venturi for a while." So we stuck … and stuck … and stuck.
Venturi, a sweet-swinging, fairly little guy, died May 17 at age 82. You probably remember him for his 35 years working as a golf analyst for CBS. But not if you had checked him out at Congressional that day. He was unbelievable in every sense of the word.
He had undergone hand surgery a few weeks before, and you could tell his left hand was bothering him. He said later he had no feeling in it half the time. He had a slight limp. At the first turn, during which he shot a record 30, he was beyond pale. A playing partner, Paul Harney, said, "I didn't expect him to play the second nine, much less the second round."
By the second nine, things got worse. Later he said: "I don't know why, but I'll never forget the 15th hole. My whole body began to shake and tremble. By the time we got to 17, I was so dizzy I was seeing three holes on the green."
Despite two finishing bogeys, he shot 66 and trailed leader Tommy Jacobs by just two strokes.
Most assumed Venturi wouldn't continue.
"We played a practice round the other day and he could only go 12 holes," Harney said. "He's white as a ghost in the locker room. The doc gave him a dozen salt pills and they keep pumping fluids in him. He's laying on a tile floor in there and had downed about two gallons of iced tea."
The doctor said he had told Venturi: "I'd suggest that you forget about trying to play again. If you go out again in that heat in your condition, it could actually be fatal."
But Venturi wasn't about to let his chance slip by, no matter what it cost him. A dozen years before, as an amateur, Venturi had shot a closing 80 to lose the Masters.
The elation he felt when he dropped a putt on the 18th hole made him almost cry.
"My God, I've won the Open," he said.
Later, heading into the press room for a post-match conference, he recognized a couple of guys, stopped, shook their hands and said: "You two did all 36 holes with me today, didn't you? Thanks, but you gotta be nuts."
Venturi received a thunderous standing ovation from the press, something that doesn't happen often. He was feeling much better, a far cry from earlier in the afternoon, when a doctor followed him on the course with a hypodermic needle ready in case Venturi collapsed in the heat and went into convulsions.
Try as I might, I recall absolutely nothing about the return to Baltimore and the game between the Orioles and the Red Sox that night. Having witnessed the ultimate in sports heroics that day, it figured.
Posted May 22, 2013