Nineteen sixty-four was a remarkable year in sports, featuring some of the greatest athletes in history. The great Jim Brown led the Cleveland Browns to the National Football League championship. Bill Russell guided the Celtics to one of their 11 world titles. Mickey Mantle took the Yankees to yet another World Series, while Arnold Palmer claimed the last of his seven major golf championships, winning the Masters green jacket.
But did you know that none of these hall of fame stars was the top athlete of the year? That honor went to golfer Ken Venturi, who not only claimed PGA Player of the Year, but was also named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year.
Venturi garnered athlete of the year honors by capturing the U.S. Open, the only major championship of his career. The fact is there has been a lot of one time major winners, and none of them ever gained the accolade of sportsman of the year. But it was the way Venturi won this particular championship that set him apart from previous winners. In those days, the final 36 holes were played on Sunday, which called for extra endurance from the golfers. The 1964 U.S. Open proved even more grueling, as it was played in suffocating triple digit heat. During the final round, Venturi began to feel weak, and doctor's on the course diagnosed the San Francisco native with heat stroke and advised him to drop out of the tournament. The veteran golfer, who had finished runner-up to Palmer in the 1958 and 1960 Masters, refused to quit.
In a film clip shown as much as any in sports history, Venturi is seen staggering down the 18th hole, barely able to walk. But somehow Venturi manages to finish the round and claims the Open championship.
Venturi was forced to retire three years later, suffering from carpal tunnel damage in both wrists. The soft spoken Californian then made the transition to the broadcast booth, where he worked as CBS' top golf color analyst for the next 35 years. It was the longest consecutive stint for a sports broadcaster in history. Venturi worked alongside Pat Summerall and Jim Nance, describing some of the greatest moments in golf for more than three decades. Venturi retired from CBS in 2000, and just this past January was inducted in to the World Golf Hall of Fame for his contributions to the game of golf.
Venturi died last week in his home state of California at the age of 82, leaving behind a legacy on both the course and in the broadcast booth. But it was his unbridled courage on that fateful Sunday in June of 1964 that Venturi will always be remembered.