First in Los Angeles, then sweeping over the sunny Monterey Peninsula and back down to mountain-ringed Palm Springs (with just a peek across the Mexican border into Tijuana) the 1959 golf season has received a glorious bon voyage from the state of California. After playing at San Diego this week the professional golfers move on out into Arizona, Texas and the South, competing for a record $1.5 million in prize money. It should be a rousing journey.
The excitement clattered in with the very first event of the season, the Los Angeles Open, which Ken Venturi won by scoring an amazing final-round 63. After Ernie Vossler had captured the tightly contested Tijuana Open, Art Wall stumbled in the winner of Bing Crosby's celebrity-studded pro-amateur when Gene Littler fired a shot into the Pacific Ocean on the final hole of the final day. At Palm Springs last weekend this theme of frantic climax was sustained. In the very last round Arnold Palmer, surpassing even Venturi's tour de force at Los Angeles, shot a 62 to win the Thunderbird Invitation tournament.
Throughout the month, however, the central figure on a stage crowded with golfing stars was 27-year-old Venturi. Passing up Tijuana after his dramatic showing at Los Angeles, Ken faded somewhat in The Crosby, but came back hard at Palm Springs, finishing in a dramatic tie for second with Jimmy Demaret. The young and dedicated Californian has marked himself early as the most exciting golfer of the year. For Herbert Warren Wind's evaluation of his promise, turn the page.
THE IMPOSSIBLE IS THEIR HERO'S DAILY DIET
For the past year and a half, ever since his back-to-back victories in the St. Paul and Milwaukee Opens in the summer of 1957 made it clear that he had arrived as a professional golfer and could well develop into a really great golfer, Ken Venturi, a young man from San Francisco, has enjoyed a rare status in his home state: he is the pride of both northern Californians and southern Californians. When Californians get behind a local product and he continues to produce, their enthusiasm has a way of turning into the formidable, possessive passion of a bullfighter's cult, and this was the stage reached last winter when Venturi scored three fine victories on the tour and generally demonstrated that he could indeed be the Hogan of this next decade.
Early this January in the Los Angeles Open, playing before native galleries who regard the impossible as their hero's daily diet, Venturi, eight strokes back of the leader when the final day dawned, came through with perhaps the greatest round of his career, a wonderful 63 that saw him home the victor by two shots. In California today there is only one type of argument when two golfers get together: each contends that he is the greater admirer of Venturi.
In personality, Venturi, a tall, not unhandsome young man who mirrors his emotions almost as lucidly as Snead, enjoys the excitement of tournaments and galleries and imbues his shotmaking with a natural flair for the dramatic. He is very well fitted for the role in which he has been cast—far better fitted, say, than Gene Littler, an exceedingly quiet and reticent fellow, who was accorded the same lush regard by Californians when he turned professional in 1954. Like those remarkable competitors of an earlier era, Sarazen and Hagen, Venturi is endowed with an ocean of buoyancy. He forgets bad rounds quickly. After a good round, his exhilaration is so uninhibited that, in an age where it has become standard practice for sports figures to be restrainedly modest before everything else, it has occasionally been misread as conceit. That is not a trait of his, but he has a deep-seated self-confidence and the youthful belief, like many athletic stars who have grown up as junior celebrities, that everyone is as candid and outgoing as he is.
To be sure, admiration for Venturi's golf skill is anything but confined to the beyond-the-cordillera civilization. For example, quite a few of his colleagues on the tour—Jay Hebert, for one—have alluded to him for quite some time now as simply "the best player on the circuit." Putting is the weakest part of Venturi's game. He probably holes more than his share of long ones and his good strokes are very good strokes, but a fairly high proportion of his medium-length and short putts are not firmly struck, and sometimes under pressure he has a tendency to ride his right hand a little to the outside and to close the blade a trifle as he taps through the ball. Off the tee he has improved both his consistency and his length. He now gets the ball out a great distance for a player of his slightish build, hitting his first few drives with no particular emphasis usually, but growing longer and longer during the progress of a round.
But it is Venturi's iron play that is exceptional, as has often been remarked. He has struck more than one veteran observer as possibly being nothing less than the finest iron player of all time. A good part of his soundness and finesse is the result of his many hours of tutelage with Byron Nelson, but at least an equal part of his skill appears to be sheer instinct. As he studies a particular shot, he seems to breathe into his bones the particular nuances it calls for. If the ball should ideally be drilled low, it is drilled low. If it should coast up to the green and then softly fade a shade off to the right to catch the contours and slip down to the pin, it frequently does. The ball that ideally, to suit the conformation of the green area and the pin position, should be drawn a fraction from right to left is. He plays the straightaway three-iron and four-iron with the same let-it-fly decisiveness which most professionals manage only when they are handling the seven-iron and its close relatives. The amazing thing about Venturi's style is its thunderous absence of visible effort. He has a beautiful grip—he seems to have a dozen fingers entwined around the shaft. Though his backswing is not the picture of fluidity, everything is where he wants it to be. Through the ball his balance and timing are superlative, and this is what makes his shotmaking look so easy and quiet.
In the professional field today there are more good golfers than there have ever been: about 10 truly first-class players, another 10 who always play well and at times with brilliance, and another 25 who have the stuff to win tournaments and have won them. For all this, Venturi's most difficult problem, it sometimes seems, is the pressure of fulfilling the great expectations which Californians and outlanders alike have for him. The thing that would do him the most good, of course, would be a victory in a major championship like the National Open, the British Open, or the Masters (in which he has come close twice in the last three years). To earn a position among the great golfers, a man must make a considerable showing in these major competitions. The first victory, those who have done it say, is always the hardest.
STYLISH SLUGGER Jimmy Demaret, driving off Thunderbird's first tee, abandoned traditional golfer's slacks for more colorful plus fours. Demaret held third-round lead, but finished tied for second.
BUSY AMATEUR Crosby first sponsored own tournament, then went to Palm Springs for Thunderbird event.
BIG MONEY-WINNER Wall earned $10,000 in first three events, faded at Palm Springs.
BLAZING FINISHER Palmer rapped out last-round 62, was first at Thunderbird.
NO. 1 PRODUCER Desi Arnaz played despite his myriad TV enterprises.
IN PRESS ROOM (ABOVE) VENTURI'S CANDID BUOYANCY PRODUCES LIVELY COPY
IN DRAMATIC SETTING AT THE MASTERS, WHICH HE CAME CLOSE TO WINNING IN 1956 AND 1958, VENTURI HITS AN IRON SHOT TO AUGUSTA NATIONAL'S 17TH GREEN