The U.S. Open returns to Congressional Country Club today, the third time golf’s national championship has been played just outside the nation’s capital. In 1997, Ernie Els won, a victory sealed when Colin Montgomerie waited five minutes before missing a par putt on 17, and then Tom Lehman pulled a seven-iron into the water on the same hole.
That Open was a mere footnote compared to the historical significance of the prior Open at Congressional. In 1964, Ken Venturi won the championship, nearly died, and changed the conduct of the Open forever.
It will not be news to anyone who has visited Washington in the summer that the weather can be on the hellish side of steamy. So it was on the days of that ’64 Open, with high humidity and temperatures in the 80s on Thursday, 90s on Friday, and well over 100 on Saturday; a U.S.G.A. official reported seeing a thermometer register 112 degrees near the 14th green. And on Sunday…
There was no play on Sunday. The championship, like all U.S. Opens from the beginning, concluded with two rounds in a day, a 36-hole crucible intended to test a golfer’s physical and mental endurance. (The first three Opens were 36 holes played in one day; from 1898-1925 it consisted of 72 holes played in two days.)
Venturi began feeling woozy during the morning round. He staggered from the 15th green to the next tee, and told his playing partner Ray Floyd that he didn’t know if he could make it in. He was visibly shaky on the last two holes, both of which he bogeyed for a 66, and told Dr. John Everett in the clubhouse that he was feeling chills on the course.
The doctor recognized signs of dehydration, and urged Venturi to rest for the forty-five minutes allotted between rounds, take salt pills, and drink (iced tea was Venturi’s beverage of choice). Dr. Everett warned him that going back out into the heat could kill him, and Venturi – who had come close in several Masters without winning, and was battling injuries that would force him to retire a few years later – told him, “Well, it’s better than the way I’ve been living.”
Venturi played, and he shot a 70 to hang on for the victory. Dr. Everett walked the round in the gallery, giving him more tea and salt pills as needed. At the end of the round, Venturi handed over the scorecard he had kept for Floyd to sign. There wasn’t a number on it. Venturi then stared at his own card, trying to remember his results hole by hole before signing it and making it official. He stared and stared, and finally heard a voice over his shoulder saying, “Go ahead and sign, Ken, it’s correct.” The speaker was Joe Dey, Jr., Executive Director of the United States Golf Association.
Seven months later, the U.S.G.A. dropped a bombshell: beginning in 1965, the Open would be played over four days, not three. Dey declared, “Increasingly slow play has made the 36-hole Saturday too much of an endurance test – more than eight hours on the course for each player.” Dey described the change as “deplorable as far as tradition is concerned, but in the context of the times [it was] the correct thing to do.” No one would have to go through an ordeal like Venturi’s again.
There were howls of outrage. Open Saturday was considered the most exciting day in golf. The organization “had long and staunchly defended the continuation of the double round on the very ground that endurance should be one of the requisites of a national champion,” wrote Herbert Warren Wind in The New Yorker. Wind added that the ’65 Open, decided in an eighteen-hole playoff after a seesaw final eighteen, “without the double round seemed a little like ‘Moby Dick’ without the Whale.”
Sports Illustrated saw the evil hand of television in the decision, since eliminating Open Saturday would leave two nice, separate, televisable days of coverage (which consisted of holes 15 through 18 in those days). “The grand distinction of the U.S. Open was that its final 36 holes were played in one day through which the winner not only had to display the best possible golf but nerve and stamina as well,” SI opined. “For 40 years this format was a key element in setting the U.S. Open apart from the Hupmobile Classic, the Pop Bottle Open and whatever else the pros compete in week after week…. We are tired of the way traditions are being constantly cast aside in the name of TV for a dollar or a popularity race or whatever adds up to ‘the context of the times.’”
This past Monday at Congressional, Venturi himself endorsed the trial by humid fire he had survived: “Ben Hogan won four U.S. Opens, and they said, how do you explain that? He said, they can beat you in 18 holes, but you can grind them down in 36.”
Herb Wind had a similar thought forty-six years ago: “A golfer who is not swinging well and hitting the ball accurately can with luck shimmy through eighteen holes without its showing on his scorecard, but no golfer can hope to survive thirty-six holes in one day without suffering a major collapse unless he has full control of an absolutely sound swing in addition to a first-class competitive temperament.”
Would Hogan have won four Opens in today’s format? Or might he have won even more, including 1955 at Olympic (lost in a playoff) and 1960 at Cherry Hills (put a wedge in the water for bogey at the 71st hole then triple-bogeyed 18 and lost by four), if the double round hadn’t taken such a toll on his damaged legs?
The Open, even over four days, is still an ordeal. Thanks in part to three days at Congressional – and in part to the dictates of commerce — it now identifies the best golfers in the world without endangering their health.