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Ken Venturi, the '64 U.S. Open champ, says golf was a different game in his era

Ken Venturi, 1964 U.S. Open
WALTER IOOSS JR./SI
Ken Venturi won the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional.

BETHESDA, Md. — You'll hear the story over and over this week. How he barely survived the 36-hole final in blazing heat, losing eight pounds and taking 18 salt tablets along the way, staggering to the finish with little or no memory of the shots he hit to win the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional.

The legend has almost outgrown the truth, and Ken Venturi is the first one to admit it.

"Well that was 47 years ago and so much has been said about what I went through that day, and when I do speeches and stuff around the country, they get carried away a little bit and it's hard to tell your speech," Venturi said.

But he still does, proudly telling that story and others from his playing days and 35-year career as a broadcaster with CBS Sports. Most of Venturi's contemporaries are long gone now; names he dropped in his press conference at Congressional Country Club on Monday morning included Hogan, Quimet, Sarazen, Toots Shor, and Sinatra, all a dead giveaway of both his age (80) and his playing era (from 1956 to 1967 on the PGA Tour).

So was seeing Bubba Watson today on Congressional's par-3 10th, hitting a 6-iron 218 yards. "In my day that was a good 4-wood," Venturi said with a smile.

Almost everything was different in his day. Coming into that 1964 U.S. Open, Venturi was 16th in driving distance, averaging 249 yards. Like many others, he had lost a few years of his career to the draft, in effect back then for the Korean War. He didn't have his own caddie at Congressional, but drew the club's best, William Ward, for the week. Yet his stellar play -- starting out that Saturday six shots back and winning by four -- almost went for naught in the scoring tent after he finished because he was too nervous to sign his scorecard.

"When I gave (playing partner) 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 said. "And he gave me my card and I went over it and saw the score. I kept going over it and I couldn't sign it.

"I had one thing in mind, a girl I knew from Hawaii, Jackie Pung, who won the U.S. Open [in 1957 at Winged Foot, but was disqualified signing an incorrect scorecard]," Venturi said. "And I couldn't put the pencil on the card."

It took USGA executive director Joe Dey, who was also an official with Venturi's group that final day, to get Venturi to sign his card.

"All of a sudden there was a hand on my shoulder, and he said, 'Sign it Ken, it is correct,'" Venturi said. "I looked up and it was Joe Dey and that's when I signed my card."

Venturi never played a full 18 at Congressional again, yet the place remains almost sacred to him. He recently donated the irons from his 1964 win, a few of the scorecards, and two letters from President Eisenhower and Bobby Jones to the club.

"I know they make a lot of money today," said Venturi, who took home $17,500 for winning the 1964 U.S. Open. "But I wouldn't trade my era for anything in the world. It was the greatest time of not only golf, but sports. Friends and handshakes, that's what we lived by. And that was a great time."

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