Sunday May 19, 2013

For most who play and follow golf, Ken Venturi's 35 years as the outstanding lead golf analyst of CBS is what came to mind with the sad news of his passing on Friday. That's natural, especially for those who weren't around to follow golf way back in the 1960s.

For me, however, it didn't take very long to think about the black and white TV images of Venturi wobbling up to the 18th green at the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club and making a 10-foot for a 70 and a comeback victory over Tommy Jacobs.

As a young golfer, I watched any golf that was on the tube in those days, but I can't any visualize a single TV golf moment like I still can that one. And that's coming from a fan of Jack Nicklaus who was sure to tune in any time the Golden Bear was in contention.

Back in that era, the final two rounds of the Open were contested on a single day. Not surprisingly, considering what happened on that oppressively hot and humid day in suburban Washington D.C., the U.S. Golf Association went to four 18-hole rounds the very next year.

After a 45-minute break between rounds, Venturi started his final 18-hole struggle. He was followed by a doctor, who at one point warned Venturi against continuing because he was concerned he could die from heat prostration. He was given ice cubes, iced team and salt pills as his improbable march to victory somehow continued. Through it all, he conquered the heat and pressure to prevail.

"I dropped my putter and I raised my arms up to the sky," Venturi told the Associated Press in 1997. "I said ‘My God, I've won the Open.' The applause was deafening."

Venturi was so exhausted, he couldn't even bend down to take his ball out of the hole.

"I felt this hand on me, and it was Raymond Floyd handing me the ball," Venturi recalled. "I looked at him, and he had tears streaming down his face."

"He was running on fumes," Floyd later told the AP. "If you had asked him his name, he could not have told you. It was one of the most heroic things I have seen."

I don't remember if I was moved to tears like Floyd, but I definitely remember the images and being amazed at what I had witnessed.

Making it all the more amazing is that, having not won since 1960 and on the verge on not playing the PGA Tour any longer, Venturi had to make it through both local and sectional qualifying just to get to Congressional.

Because of circulatory problems with his hands, Venturi's playing career didn't last much longer. He started his CBS career in 1967, with the memory of his dramatic still fresh enough to give him an immediate connection with viewers.

While the Open and his television career will be the things he will always be most remembered for, one match he played in 1956 will also always have a place in golf lore.

In the early 1950s, Venturi was an up-and-coming amateur from San Francisco when he was introduced to Byron Nelson. The Hall of Famer helped the youngster with his game and would go on to be a lifetime friend and, somewhat ironically, the golf analyst for rival ABC. The introduction was made by Eddie Lowery, yes, the same Lowery who as a child caddied for amateur Francis Ouimet when he won the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club. Lowery became a successful businessman, but he also served on the USGA board for years and knew virtually everyone in golf.

Early in 1956, Venturi took on legendary amateur Harvie Ward and easily defeated him in the San Francisco city championship in front of 15,000 spectators, according to Nelson's autobiography.

A few days later, also according to Nelson, Lowery, who was close to both amateurs, was having dinner with oil and mining tycoon George Coleman when Coleman said to Lowrey, "Your kids played pretty good in San Francisco." Lowrey replied, "Yes, they can beat anybody, those two kids."

Nelson says Coleman baited Lowrey a bit and Eddie insisted the amateurs could even beat pros and they made a bet. The players Coleman had in mind? Nelson and the legendary Ben Hogan!

Somehow, word of the match got out and when the foursome got to the first tee at Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula where Coleman was a member, a thousand or so golf fans were waiting for them. For a riveting shot-by-shot account of the day check out Mark Frost's brilliant book "The Match."

Here's Nelson's concise description:

"We didn't waste time getting started -- the birdies started on the first hole. They made them, we made them and sometimes we made them together. We finally went 1 up on the 10th when Ben holed out a full wedge on a par 5 you couldn't reach in two. Then I made a 3 with a drive and 2-iron and one putt on the 11th, but they birdied too, so we halved that. Starting at 14, the hole up the hill through the trees, we both made 3, and we both made 3 at 15. At 16, I made 2, so we were two up at 17, and they birdied, but we didn't. They birdied 18, but so did Ben, so we won 1 up.

"The four of us were a total of 26 under par, and many of the people who were there said later that it was the greatest four-ball match in history.

Perhaps Venturi, who joined Nelson as a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame member just 12 days prior to his death, are reliving that unforgettable match in golf heaven right now.

The New York Times contributed to this story.