Just a bit before 6:30 on a steamy Saturday afternoon last June, Ken Venturi, the golfer, was on the verge of winning the most prestigious event in his profession, the USGA Open Championship. At this climactic moment in his life, he was utterly exhausted. He was exhausted by the 35 holes of golf he had already played that day in the stygian heat of the Potomac Valley, and he was even more exhausted—yet buoyed, too—by the emotion of a personal victory over himself.
As he walked down the 18th fairway of Washington, D.C.'s Congressional Country Club on legs that the 100� heat had turned to taffy, his eyes downcast and his feet as dead as stones, he heard the voice of Joseph C. Dey Jr., a USGA official who was at his side. "Hold your head up, Ken," said Dey gently. "You're a champion now." Suddenly aware of himself and his setting, Venturi removed the white linen cap that has been his sartorial trademark during his eight years as a professional golfer. He raised his eyes to the scoreboard beyond the green and to the clubhouse on the hill above it. Dimly, as though through a wall of cotton, he could hear the soaring applause of the gallery that lined the fairway six deep on either side. After more than three years of humiliation and defeat, Ken Venturi had come back, and in a setting that was dripping with melodrama.
From a theatrical standpoint, there was nothing in sports in the year 1964 to equal the return of Ken Venturi, yet that is not why the editors of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED have chosen him Sportsman of the Year. He has been selected because his is the cruel, the ugly and eventually the inspiring story of a defeated man who refused to accept failure. It is the story of a proud and even arrogant man who had to beg to get into tournaments that he once had been begged to play in; a man whose best friend once told him to go home and learn the meaning of the word humble. It is the story of a man who found faith, particularly in himself—and of a priest who helped him.
It would be no more possible to pinpoint the beginning of Venturi's comeback than to capture a moment called now. In 1960 he was the second biggest money winner on the tournament circuit. He won the Crosby in January and was sitting in the clubhouse at Augusta in April, the apparent winner of the Masters, when Arnold Palmer birdied the last two holes to take it away from him. In August he won the Milwaukee Open, the 10th tournament victory of his young career, giving him $41,230 in earnings for the year—enough, he thought, to justify a few relaxing autumn months in his pleasant California home. It was to be almost four years before he won again, years in which his talent, his poise and his stability slipped away.
By 1963, Venturi was unwanted at big tournaments. The little ones would take him because his name looked good in the local Gazette and promoters knew a few people would still pay to see him—largely to whisper behind their hands, like the morbid onlookers at an accident. When he showed up at the registration desk to sign in for the Sahara Invitational in Las Vegas, an official told him he was not invited. Humiliated, he returned to his hotel to pack. Only through the intervention of three old friends—the Hebert brothers and Gardner Dickinson—did the tournament officials relent.
"What Kenny went through in those years," a friend said recently, "was like a millionaire going broke." There were times when he had no idea where the ball was headed when he hit it. A shot on the 13th hole at St. Petersburg traveled more than 200 yards out of bounds. At Augusta people kept asking him what had happened to his swing. Baffled and resentful, he said he wanted to swing that way. At the Colonial National Invitation in Fort Worth he was so discouraged by a first-round 80 that he deliberately turned in an incorrect scorecard to get himself disqualified. He often went back to his motel room to stare at the walls or gaze blankly at television, even when visitors were there. "Ken's flaky," people said, and they were right. But Venturi did not complain, either to the press or to his fellow pros. The latter understood his misery, and many who had never wished him a moment's good became his biggest boosters. "I'll never forget," says Dave Marr, "how he sat with us all through dinner one night after missing the cut at a tournament, and he never once talked about a shot or mentioned his bad luck. That was real class."
"I'd rather have gone 15 rounds with Marciano than play a round of tournament golf," Venturi now concedes, "but I kept going. I had to. I was losing my qualifying exemptions, and I had made it a rule that I would not go out and try to qualify for a tournament along with the ghosts of the pro tour. I began to realize how important a major championship is. Just one major championship would have been worth all 10 of my tour championships."
In 1962 Venturi won $6,951 and finished 66th on the money list, and 1963 was even worse: his official winnings were $3,848. There were many days that year when he stood 10 hours on the practice tee, not even stopping for lunch. His childhood stammer—which his mother thinks is the result of switching him from left- to right-handed—grew worse. She says she could detect his chin twitching frequently, a sure sign of nervous tension in Ken. He went to doctors and, ultimately, to a hypnotist, but nothing helped.
"I kept hitting balls until my hands were blistered, kept practicing, and toward the end of 1963 I began feeling pretty good about the way I was playing," Ken recalls. "I told Conni in December that we had just enough money to carry me through one more year on the tour. My contract with U.S. Royal still had a year to go, and with my savings and what I could borrow I could just make it. If I failed, I would have to find another business, and I asked Bill Varni if there was a chance I might buy into his restaurant, the Owl 'n' Turtle, in downtown San Francisco. He told me, 'You don't want half this restaurant; 1964 is going to be your year.' "
By the first of this year Venturi's game was improving in a spectacular way. At his home club, the respectable old California Golf Club on the southern outskirts of San Francisco, he was hitting hundreds of practice shots within inches of one another. He was full of confidence—and he was trying to forget the other times in the past three years that he had also been full of confidence.