The chilly weather at the U.S. Open this week, sweater weather along the cliffs of Pebble Beach, triggers a memory of a long ago day when the temperature at Congressional Club in D.C. reached 100 degrees and almost melted one of the most dramatic and appropriately heartwarming finishes ever in the national championship.
They played 36 holes on the final day back then, in 1964. Ken Venturi barely made it through the morning round. Dizzy and shaking from dehydration in the heavy, still air under a blistering sun, he bogeyed the last two holes but still posted a 66 and was two shots out of the lead.
But he was in trouble. His playing partner, Raymond Floyd, told Venturi's wife, "He's sick."
I went into the lockerroom and found Venturi being treated by a doctor. He was drinking tea with lemon and the doctor was holding cold towels to his neck. His face had no color. His eyes were vacant.
By the time he appeared on the tee for the final round, the temperature was pushing 100 and the air was smothering. I followed him out onto the course to see how he fared, thinking there was no way he would make it 18 holes.
His doctor carried a bag of ice cubes to cool down towels for Venturi's neck and face and fed him salt tablets.
I was the one who couldn't go 18. I gave up after five holes and headed back to the clubhouse, stopping under trees all along the way to get some relief in the shade.
I stumbled into the lockerroom and began applying cool, wet towels to my neck. I have never been hotter in my life.
The story unfolding out there was a fairy tale. Venturi had come out of California after a sparkling amateur career and quickly become one of the hottest players on the PGA Tour. But a back injury that forced him to alter his beautiful swing robbed him of the game that some thought was the best of the time, a game that had come within a hair of winning three Augusta Masters championships.
Going into the 1964 Open, he had played poorly for the last few years, so poorly he had trouble even getting into tournaments. For Venturi, a spirited, fierce competitor for whom the world had been there for his taking, it was a bitter, wrenching experience.
He had to qualify for the '64 Open and after a poor start, he told his playing companions he was packing it in. They talked him into playing the second qualifying round and he made it.
His performance in the Open, then, was a shock to many, but not to Reverend Francis Murray, a parish priest with whom Venturi played from time to time. Shortly before the Open, Father Murray wrote a letter to Venturi. It said in part, "Most people are in the midst of unremitting struggle, involving their jobs, their family problems, their health, frustrations of various sorts, even the insecurity of life itself. For many there is a pressing temptation to give up, to quit trying. Life at times simply seems to be too much, its demands overpowering.
"If you should win, Ken, you would prove, I believe, to millions everywhere that they, too, can be victorious over doubt, misfortune, and despair. I'll be here with your mother and father and the children watching you on TV."
Venturi thought of those words as he plodded painfully around the final 18 holes. As he made his way down the last fairway, exhausted, cheers and applause swept across the hillside.When he holed his putt for a 70 and the victory, he raised his arms and said, "My God, I've won the Open."
Playing partner Raymond Floyd, the normally steely Raymond Floyd, had tears in his eyes when he hugged Venturi.
It seemed Venturi was back to stay but after winning the American Golf Classic later that year, he developed a problem with blood circulation in his hands and he never won again. Most of that beautiful game was irretrievably gone.
In 1969, just before the Open, he spoke at a dinner and talked about his problems with his hands and said, "My golf days are limitedThere's not much I fear but I do fear leaving the game I love. I just thank God for the moment of glory He gave me."
A moment of glory. Yes. That's what it was.