Monday 25 September 2017

Irish connection appeals to Venturi's better instincts

Dermot Gilleece

Still a golf fan at heart, 80-year-old Ken Venturi had walked the short distance from the back of the Congressional clubhouse to the short 10th to see Phil Mickelson tee off. "That poor man will never get back through the crowds," said a concerned official.

But he did, smiling at well-wishers all the while. If they weren't around in 1964 to see him capture the US Open at this venue, they didn't forget him from his 35 years as leading golf analyst with the CBS Network.

When I introduced myself, his first question was: "Do you know Dermot Kelly?" Of course I knew one of Lahinch's most celebrated members, I assured him. From that point onwards, our chat was plain sailing. He even went so far as to facilitate me with a quiet room in the clubhouse, though it still didn't stop passers-by coming in to greet him.

Almost 15 years ago, I wrote about Venturi and his Irish connection and of the tremendous charity work he did for an institute in Killarney through the annual staging of the Mental Handicap Golf Classic. "I've been going to Ireland for 22 years," he said. "And I'll be back there in September, in a house I share with some friends at Lahinch."

Venturi has been positively lionised this week for his 1964 US Open triumph when he overcame muscle spasms and heat exhaustion in temperatures reaching 104 degrees. In fact, during the break between the third and fourth rounds which were played on the final day, he was administered tea and salt tablets in the locker-room, where a doctor urged him to withdraw from the championship.

When the player steadfastly refused to do so, the same doctor followed him with ice packs through a closing round in which his partner was 21-year-old Raymond Floyd. It has been well documented how he found inspiration in a note sent to him by his parish priest, Fr Frank Murray.

"I'm sure he was Irish," said Venturi. "I still have that letter he wrote to me and it was almost as if he had seen the future. When it was handed to me on the Friday as I got into a courtesy car, I read it and went to church. Then I read it again. He urged me to get my birdies early because it was going to he hot. He called the whole day.

"But I must admit that the 'My God' I came out with after the final putt dropped was an exclamation rather than a prayer. I simply couldn't believe it went in because it was headed right of the hole and it wasn't supposed to go left. But it did. That's when I lost my composure because I was looking at something that couldn't be done. And the great thing was playing with Ray Floyd who wept as he picked my ball out of the hole. And I cried myself."

He claimed his charity work was inspired by his mentor and tutor, Byron Nelson. "When I asked Byron how I could ever repay him for all he did for me, he said 'Ken, be good to the game and give back'. And I try to do that. To give back to life, through various charities, including the one in Killarney and one in New York for the blind."

Venturi is an honorary member of eight Irish clubs -- Lahinch, Ballybunion, Tralee, Waterville, Killarney, Portmarnock, The K Club and Royal Co Down. "I love it over there; the people are just great. And despite these (he shows me the cramped hands which ended his career in 1968) I still play when I go to Ireland. Not like I used to, but I still enjoy it. In fact I once did 45 holes in a cart at Lahinch."

When yet another surgery failed to solve the problem with his hands, renowned golf producer, Frank Chirkinian, offered him a job with CBS. It was a bittersweet moment, given that he was only 37 at the time, but one he never regretted. Venturi smiled. "Here's a good closing line for you," he said. "Fate has a way of bending the twig and fashioning a man to his better instincts."

* * * * *

'I thought fun and happiness were the same thing, but they're not. They're entirely different. That's a common thing among all addicts. They are always getting those two things mixed up. What happens when you confuse fun and happiness? You get unhappiness." So said David Feherty, who gave a one-man show at a local university theatre here last Tuesday, on a topic he would like to raise with Tiger Woods.

* * * * *

The USGA can be a rather smug lot when it comes to their national championship. By way of explaining traditionally brutal course set-ups, they famously asserted: "Our objective is not to embarrass the best golfers in the world, but to identify them."

Then, in 2004, they proclaimed: "The US Open should be the most rigorous, the most difficult yet fair test in championship golf, an examination which tests both the players' physical capabilities, including all shot-making, and tests the players' mental capabilities and tenacity."

All of which prompted me to suggest to Mike Davis, the recently appointed USGA executive director: "You claim that you're setting the ultimate golfing challenge. What makes you believe you're right in what you're doing?"

His reply was a lot more moderate than the espoused philosophy of seven years ago. "I guess I would question the premise about the ultimate golfing challenge," he said. "I think what we've stated over the years is that we want it to be a very difficult challenge, but I'm sure we've never used 'the ultimate challenge'."

Then he added: "I think the answer is that it's a subjective thing. Certainly in the last several years, we've tried to give the players more options." And it was Davis who instituted these changes at Winged Foot in 2006, characterised by graduated rough and greater scope around the greens for short-game skills. Prior to that, one of the game's greatest players, the late Seve Ballesteros, had virtually no chance of winning the US Open because of the strictures placed on his natural flair.

"Courses used to be very, very penal," said former R and A secretary Michael Bonallack when we met this week. "With the emphasis on accuracy, they almost took the driver out of the bag. But Mike Davis changed all that. Mind you, players now have to use the driver because the courses are so long."

Finally, those of you whingeing about green speeds on your friendly, home stretch, where speeds generally run to a moderate nine on the Stimpmeter, should consider the following numbers.

Speeds were between 14.5 and 15 when Angel Cabrera won at Oakmont in 2007, whereas they were a moderate 11 to 11.5 on the more exposed surfaces of Pebble Beach 12 months ago. The speed this weekend? Between 14 and 14.5 which, trust me, is seriously quick.

* * * * *

An exchange overheard this week between Congressional members. "Who's the best putter in the (US) Open?" "Fluff Cowen (Jim Furyk's caddie)." "Why so?" "Because he's a member here and nobody knows these greens better."

* * * * *

On a torrid afternoon at the Olympic Club, San Francisco in 1998, Pádraig Harrington's grizzled bagman John O'Reilly trudged up the finishing hole, very much the worse for wear. "Any chance of getting me a cuppa tea?" he gasped to me, before breathlessly explaining that caddies were denied access to any refreshment area.

The bold John, sadly gone from us, wouldn't have believed his eyes on seeing the facilities here at Congressional. In their own marquee, caddies can watch television while helping themselves from a cabinet full of soft drinks, buffet food and enough coffee and tea to supply a church fete.

As a bonus, there was Irish-American Brendan Glynn and his so-called Wellness Team to treat their aches and pains. Large signs proclaimed:

Chiropractics, Massage Therapy, Hyperbaric Therapy. Concentrated oxygen therapy was also available for those seriously overwrought.

"As you would expect, the main problems concern the back and shoulders," said Glynn, whose grandparents hailed from Mayo. "We could also treat knees and ankles. You've got to expect this sort of thing when you're lugging a 40-pound bag round this sort of terrain.

Which would explain why they all, including lone female Fanny Sunesson, looked such a happy bunch, while promoting their masters' prospects.

* * * * *

Who was the first Irish Ryder Cup player to test his skills around Congressional CC? None of the usual suspects, as it happens. The deed was done back in 1959 by the redoubtable Christy O'Connor Snr as a member of that year's Ryder Cup team preparing for the matches in Palm Springs.

In a series of exhibition matches, the British and Irish side played against American amateurs in Atlantic City, Washington DC and Atlanta. And on their visit to Congressional, which measured 6,890 yards at the time, Bernard Hunt had best score with a 69, followed by Himself on 70. Norman Drew, the other Irish member of the side, carded a 74.

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