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PGT member and writer Nils Nelson was kind enough to compose this response piece after reading Ken Venturi’s lesson on how to hit “The Riser”.  In it, Nelson recalls watching the former US Open champion on a cold California day in 1974.  Before on-demand internet video, shotlink technology, and swingvision cameras, our impressions of athletes were formed by what we saw with our own two eyes.  Individual moments mattered and some were not easily forgotten.

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Your recent piece about Ken Venturi’s shot making sparked the memory of a special day in 1974, when the usual central California valley winter—damp, cold and heavy on the soul—had Fresno firmly in its grasp. Whether it was January or February, I can’t say. My entire being was devoted to completing a degree in creative writing at Cal State. Well, almost entire—after a very long lay-off from golf, I’d had my clubs shipped from Tucson early in the first semester and was doggedly trying to find a long lost golf swing when I wasn’t in class or tutoring undergrads about the evils of sentence fragments. One day, out of nowhere, came the news that a pro-am tournament was about to take place at Fort Washington Golf Club. Jerry Heard, the rising young star from nearby Visalia was going to play, and on learning this my new golf buddy Larry was hot to hit the course and follow Heard. I didn’t care too much about doing that. What had me all revved up was reading that Ken Venturi was also going to play. Could it be? I had been away from golf, but I hadn’t been living in a cave. I had read Comeback: The Ken Venturi Story; I listened to his TV broadcasts; I knew he was a golfer’s golfer, a consummate shot maker. And here he was in Fresno on a damp, cold, but now not at all heavy-on-the-soul day. I was elated. When we arrived at the course, I convinced Larry that we could follow Jerry Heard later. I was standing my ground. The U.S. Open Champion was about to tee off on the first hole. I know that he was in a foursome with three amateurs, but I have no recollection of them.

When Venturi snap-hooked his tee shot into the trees, my heart sank. What was this? Then I thought about how chilly it was and how that might be affecting his hands. He advanced the ball with his second, leaving about a mid-iron for his third shot on the par-5 hole. Okay, back in business. His approach seemed solid, but it caught the lip of a big greenside bunker and rolled back, leaving a long carry. I smiled when he walked into the bunker and, just as he had advocated on his TV spots, took a very wide stance, dug his feet in the sand and with no hesitation made his pass, the ball rising up and landing six feet from the hole. The putt didn’t fall. Bogey. At that point, I confess to drawing a blank as to what came next. Maybe Larry wanted to go watch Jerry Heard, and I acquiesced. It doesn’t matter. The best was still to come.

I can’t believe the holes in my memory. Maybe hypnosis would fill in the blanks. I remember watching Jerry Heard hitting a nifty short iron with lots of backspin. After that, I’m cutting across a fairway and arriving at a green in time to watch Venturi again. He executes a lovely chip shot. That’s what I want to see–his control of the ball around the green. A long chip, the ball flies low, hits and checks, then gently rolls to within two feet. Another blank spot, but this time there’s some color to it. A little gray and a lot of white, very much like the sky that’s the backdrop behind the green of a long par-3. I’m there right now, looking at the yardage: 183, and there are only five or six other spectators. Venturi’s on the tee, by himself. There’s a brisk headwind dead into us, and in the distance I see two bunkers, right front and left front. The green is slightly elevated, and perched dead center toward the back is the flagstick—a very thin flagstick that seems to be floating on the horizon. Ken is addressing the ball, and before I can assess his intent, that fast, whip-like swing is over and done with and the ball is on its way, driving into the wind as if it’s not there. And it’s climbing, rising, hovering. This can’t be happening, part of me seems to be denying what I see. And it’s the ball falling straight down behind the flag. I start to being my arms up to clap, but there’s dead silence, we’re all frozen except Venturi, who’s walking off the tee. The moment’s passed, and I balked. I failed to acknowledge what I just saw, and I feel ashamed for not expressing it.

Ten years later, I came across The Venturi System, and only then did I learn what I witnessed that day.

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