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Congressional Opens past: Venturi’s 1964 triumph in the heat

Jay Busbee
Devil Ball Golf

For just the third time in its history, Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland will host the U.S. Open this week. We'll take a look back at its previous two events, starting in 1964 with one of the most rugged Opens in history.

June golf can be exhilarating, exhausting and intoxicating, but it's rarely what you'd call "comfortable." Never was this more the case than in 1964, when Congressional hosted its first U.S. Open and temperatures soared well above 100 degrees. Combine that environment with the fact that players plodded through a 36-hole marathon on the final day, and you had the elements in place for one ugly afternoon of golf.

Credit Ken Venturi, then, for salvaging a thing of beauty out of this sweaty, swampy mess. Venturi, several years removed from two devastating Masters losses and a car wreck that put his career in jeopardy, was on the verge of giving up golf entirely and getting a "real job." He'd won 10 times on Tour, but none at all since 1960.

So on the afternoon of June 20, 1964, Venturi played the most important holes of his life, though he surely didn't realize it at the time. Battling the effects of heat exhaustion and dehydration which left him lightheaded, Venturi went out in 30 but by the 17th was teetering on collapse, and very nearly had to be removed from the course. He missed an 18-inch putt on 17 and a three-footer on 18, and visibly struggled to pick up the putter he dropped. Still, he carded a 66, and went to the locker room to rest between rounds.

There, a doctor advised him to quit, saying that to continue could be fatal. "I'm already dying," Venturi said, according to the USGA. "I've got no place else to go."

Tough stuff, and by the turn Venturi had taken the lead. He closed with a defiant 10-foot par putt, the finishing touch on a four-stroke victory whose 278 was the second-lowest in Open history.

"The one thing people always ask is, 'How did I do it?' And the first thing I always tell them is that it was like it was meant to be. Like it was my destiny," Venturi said. "But in a strange way what I went through might have almost helped me, because all I was thinking about was fairway, green, fairway, green, and just getting through the next shot. There were no nerves. Whatever natural talent I had just came out."

Venturi would win twice more that year, and would be named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, a high honor. While he'd never again win another major, his win at Congressional remains among golf's most memorable.

Looking Back: Venturi Wins 1964 US Open [USGA]

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