Italian American Golfers: Part 3

Italian American Golfers

This week The Italian Tribune spotlights three Italian American golfers from three different eras – Vic Ghezzi, who was a champion golfer in the 1940s; Ken Venturi, who had his greatest success in the late 1950s and after a slump, his greatest victory in the mid-1960s and Fred Couples, who is still playing on the Senior tour and made the cut for the 29th time earlier this year at the Masters.

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Vic Ghezzi

Born in Rumson, New Jersey in 1910, Victor J. Ghezzi won 11 times on the PGA Tour, including one major title. In 1941, he won the PGA Championship by defeating Byron Nelson over 38 holes in the finals. After winning what was to be the only major championship of his career, Ghezzi said: “I won against one of the finest golf players we’ve ever had. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.”

Five years later at the U.S. Open in Cleveland, Ohio, Ghezzi must have felt like a kid on Christmas morning who had not received any gifts. He lost in a three-way playoff for the championship. Ghezzi, Nelson and Lloyd Mangrum were all tied through the regulation four rounds of play, with 4‐under‐par scores of 284. Then they engaged in an 18‐hole playoff and came up tied again. In the second 18‐hole playoff, Ghezzi took a two‐stroke lead through 13 holes, but bogeyed the 14th and 15th holes. One shot down to Mangrum on the 18th green, amid rain and flashes of lightning, Ghezzi left an 8‐foot putt short by the length of a finger and Mangrum won the championship by a single stroke.

Although Ghezzi’s total prize money from the golf tour amounted to about $200,000, he invested wisely in stocks and became a wealthy man. He lived a fine life and during his last 15 years was able to relax and play golf for the love of the game.

During his career, Ghezzi played as an assistant professional, club professional or touring professional at several metropolitan area golf clubs, including the Rumson Country Club and Englewood Golf Club, both in New Jersey and the Inwood Country Club on Long Island. Ghezzi was elected to the PGA of America’s Hall of Fame in 1965 and passed away at age 65 in Miami Beach, Florida.

Ken Venturi

Kenneth Venturi was born in San Francisco, California in 1931. He learned to play golf at an early age, claiming that due to a profound stuttering problem, he sought the loneliest game he could find. He was the San Francisco high school golf champion in 1948 and 1949 and in the early 1950s, was a pupil of Byron Nelson. Venturi was also influenced by his playing partner Ben Hogan. He went on to win the California State Amateur Championship in 1951 and 1956, serving in the U.S. Army in Korea and Europe in the interim.

Venturi first gained national attention at age 24. While still an amateur, he finished second in the Masters in 1956, one shot behind Jack Burke Jr. It is still the best performance by an amateur in the history of the Masters. He turned pro at the end of the year and was a regular winner during his early years on the PGA Tour. He again came close to winning the Masters in 1958 and 1960, but was edged out both times by four-time winner Arnold Palmer.

After suffering injuries in an automobile accident in 1961, Venturi’s swing and his career began to slide downward, resulting in a slump that lasted until 1964. After a number of high finishes, he reached the pinnacle of his comeback by winning the U.S. Open in 1964 in blistering hot conditions at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. The 36 holes on the final day were all played in temperatures above 100°. A physician told him after the first round than another 18 holes might kill him. Venturi, never wavered. He won again in July and August and tied for fifth in the PGA Championship, receiving the Sports Illustrated magazine’s “Sportsman of the Year” award and the PGA Player of the Year award. He played on the Ryder Cup team the following year.

Venturi’s career took another blow when he was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists in 1965. Following surgery, he slowly began to regain his form, winning a tour event in January 1966. Tragically, his success was to be short-lived. He soon relapsed and required additional surgeries. After retiring from the Tour in 1967 with a total of 14 career wins, Venturi spent the next 35 years working as a color commentator and lead analyst for CBS Sports – the longest lead analyst stint in sports broadcasting history. The former stutterer who took up the game because of his affliction retired from the broadcast booth in 2002 at the age of 71.

Aside from his work in the booth, Venturi appeared in the 1996 film Tin Cup, portraying himself as a commentator at the U.S. Open. Ken passed away in 2013, little more than a week after being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He raised millions for charity organizations through fundraisers over many years. Indicative of his selfless nature, Venturi stayed under the radar through it all – he was a great golfer, but an even more impressive humanitarian. Ken Venturi will always be remembered not only for what he achieved in the sport, but also for what he gave back to the game.

Fred Couples

Fred Couples grew up around golf. Born in 1959, his father was a groundskeeper for the Seattle Parks Department and the family lived in a modest house near the Jefferson Park golf course, where Couples developed his signature loose, rhythmic swing. His paternal grandparents emigrated from Italy and changed the family name from “Coppola” to “Couples” to make it sound less ethnic.

He attended high school in Seattle and earned a golf scholarship to the University of Houston. As a member of the men’s golf team, he roomed with Blaine McCallister, another future PGA Tour player and future CBS television broadcaster Jim Nantz. As a 19-year-old amateur, Couples beat PGA Tour veteran (and fellow Seattle native) Don Bies in a playoff to win the 1978 Washington Open at the Glendale Country Club in Bellevue.

During a long professional golf career that began in 1980, Couples has won 64 professional tournaments, 15 PGA Tour titles – including two Players Championships (1984 and 1996) and his greatest victory – the 1992 Masters Tournament. He also has three European Tour victories and 12 PGA Tour Championships.

Couples was named the PGA Tour Player of the Year twice, in 1991 and 1992. He also won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average in each of those years. He has been named to the United States Ryder Cup team five times, in 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 1997. Despite suffering from back problems, Freddy’s swing today is still as smooth as silk. He tied the mark for the lowest score of any player aged 50 and above in the Masters with a 66 during the first round of play in 2010. Couples was inducted into the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame in 2007 and the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2013.

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