To say that Ken Venturi was down on his luck as a golfer before the 1964 U.S. Open is an understatement. He was ready to quit the game for good. Two weeks before the U.S. Open, destiny stepped in and took Venturi's hand.
"I got an invite to Westchester, which is two weeks before The Open, by Bill Jennings, who owned the New York Rangers," Venturi recalled today at Congressional Country Club. "If I hadn't gone there, I'd have gone back in the automobile business with Eddie Lowry selling cars."
The tournament was a precursor to what became the Westchester Classic then other PGA Tour events held at Westchester CC starting in 1967.
Then it was on to the U.S. Open at Congressional, where temperatures, according to the USGA, reached 108 degrees with humidity in the 90s.
"We didn't bring our own caddies then. We had a draw then," Venturi explained. "When I drew William Ward, who was the No. 1 caddie at Congressional, if there was some fate there, that would have been it. So that told you something."
Venturi played with Raymond Floyd who was then 21 years old. Floyd kept Venturi's scorecard.
"It was the longest par‑70 in the history of the Open. It played 7,050 yards," he recalled. "Today I guess, well, the lengths are longer, but they said the length they'll have this year will be the maximum will be like 7,350."
Venturi said he was first in driving accuracy that week and 16th in driving distance with an average of 249 yards.
"I was just watching players at the 10th hole, playing 218 yards, and Bubba Watson just hit a 6‑iron. In my day that was a good 4‑wood for 218," he added.
Venturi shot 278 and was just the second player in the history of the Open to break 280.
"Ben Hogan was first," Venturi said. "I was second."
Most everyone knows that Venturi almost collapsed after round three. The doctor on site, Dr. Everett, actually told him not to play the final 18 holes.
"After the first round (on Saturday), Dr. Everett told me the story, I was laying on the—next to my locker, and he says, 'I suggest that you don't go out. It could be fatal,'" Venturi recalled. "I looked up at him and I said, 'Well, it's better than the way I've been living.' And I got off the floor and I do not remember walking to the first tee."
He says that he does not remember the front nine except the final putt on the ninth hole. The applause as he walked to the final hole was incredibly loud.
"After I hit my second shot, it was the first time I took my hat off to acknowledge the gallery. And there was no yelling, no screaming; the applause was deafening," he said. "It went on until I hit the bunker shot and then I hit my putt at the 18th hole."
That's when he threw his arms up and said, "My God, I won The Open."
Venturi in fact did not get the ball out of the hole. It was Raymond Floyd who did that.
"When he put it in my hands and I looked back, the young man was crying, and I lost it, then, too. I'll never forget it as long as I live," Venturi added.
Joe Dye, former Executive Director of the USGA and first commissioner of the PGA Tour, and Hord Hardin, former Chairman of Augusta National, were his walking officials.
"When I got to the 18th hole, when I gave Ray Floyd his card, there wasn't a number on it. I don't know to this day what he even shot. I have no idea," Venturi explained. "And he gave me my card and I went over it and I saw the score. I kept going over it, and I couldn't sign it. I had one thing in mind, a girl that I knew from Hawaii, Jackie Pung, who won the U.S. Open and they wanted her to do the hula, and they made her sign the card and she put a 4 instead of a 5 and a 5 instead of a 4 and they disqualified her. And I had her in mind. And I couldn't put the pencil on the card. And all of a sudden there was a hand on my shoulder and he said, 'Sign it, Ken; it is correct.' And I looked up, it was Joe Dye, and that's when I signed my card."
Venturi said he was six shots back in the morning and won by four.
After that year, the USGA stopped 36-hole finals on Saturday for the US Open and went to an 18-hole final on Sunday.
However, Venturi said he has a funny story that he often tells about a comedian who actually thought Venturi's behavior was amusing.
"I left here and went down into New York, and went into a restaurant called Toots Shor's and I ran into Joey Lewis, and he came over to me and always called me Venny, and he said, 'Venny, I saw you win The Open,'" Venturi retold. "He said, 'I saw you stagger, fall and pass out and couldn't make it off the green. I got to tell you, from the bottom of my heart, it's the greatest act I ever saw in my life.' So everybody laughs a little bit and I can go on with my speech, but that was a true story."
This year, Venturi walked with USGA officials and showed them where he drove his ball on the final hole, where his 4-iron second shot landed in the bunker and what he did from that spot.
"Then I made the putt, and it was something that I'll always treasure it. It's just—I don't know where the time has gone, 47 years ago winning The Open," Venturi concluded.
Venturi gave the irons that he won The Open with to Congressional CC which they have on display. He also gave them the original scorecards that they did not already have and letters sent to him from President Eisenhower and Bobby Jones.
Of those who were a part of the Saturday final round story, only Venturi and Raymond Floyd are alive. Venturi's caddie, Dr. Everett, Joe Dye and Hord Hardin have all passed away.