Parallel lives: Ken Venturi and Rickie Fowler?

Ken Venturi, U.S. Open,(Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Ken Venturi, U.S. Open,(Photo by © Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) /

There is an interesting parallel – in fact an entire series of interesting parallels – between U.S. Open third round co-leader Rickie Fowler and a certain well-known champion from long ago.

The only question now is whether those parallels hold up when the trophy is presented Sunday night.

In other words, is Rickie Fowler the reincarnation of Ken Venturi.

Unless you are of a certain considerable age, you only remember Venturi, if at all, as a color analyst. He also had a fascinating playing career. One not at all unlike Fowler’s. It culminated in one of the memorable U.S. Open championships of all time, at Congressional in 1964.

Rickie Fowler hasn’t yet secured his U.S. Open title, and the parallel must be considered incomplete until he does.

But consider the numerous ways in which Fowler and Venturi have lived parallel lives.

Both men hit the golf world as phenoms. In 1956, one of the ways to qualify for the Masters was by a vote of former tournament champions. The former champs invited Venturi, then a 24-year-old California amateur and a protégée of Byron Nelson.

No amateur had ever won the Masters, but Venturi shot 66 for the first round lead, and through three rounds led Cary Middlecoff by four strokes. But he collapsed to a closing 80 and was passed by Jack Burke Jr., finishing a disheartening runner-up.

Fowler came to the tour after a glorious college career at Oklahoma State that included his winning the Ben Hogan Award, which goes to the nation’s top college player, in 2008.  Turning pro at age 20, he tied for fifth at the 2011 British Open, and in May of 2012 won for the first of five times at the Wells Fargo.

Another parallel. At the outsets of their professional careers, both men rose to the game’s upper echelons. Between 1957 and 1960, Venturi won 10 events, and some were noteworthy. He took the 1958 Thunderbird by four strokes, the 1959 Los Angeles Open, and the 1960 Crosby.

In the Majors, he was a persistent threat. Fresh off his near-miss at Augusta, he tied for eighth in that year’s U.S. Open, tied for sixth in the same event in 1957, and tied for fourth just two strokes behind Arnold Palmer at the 1958 Masters.

Two years later Venturi led Palmer by three strokes through seven holes of the Masters’ final round. He still led by one with two holes to play only to watch Palmer birdie the 17th and 18th to take the green jacket from him,

Rickie Fowler followed his 2012 Wells Fargo victory with one of the best Major seasons ever enjoyed by a non-champion. In 2014 he tied for fifth at the Masters, for second at the U.S. Open, for second again at the British Open, and for third at the PGA.

Those were four of nine top 10 finishes Fowler accumulated in Majors between 2011 and the 2018 Masters. That was the week when Patrick Reed held off Fowler’s Sunday charge to win by one stroke.

He did win the 2015 Players Championship in a memorable four-hole playoff over Kevin Kisner and Sergio Garcia. Three more victories came Fowler’s way by February of 2019. He crashed the Official World Golf Ranking’s top 10, and for a period was intimate with the top five.

There is a third parallel. Due both to their successes and to their charm, Venturi in the 1950s and Fowler in the 2010s became hugely popular with galleries and more remote audiences.  As golf’s visibility on TV grew, Venturi translated that popularity into commercial success, something Rickie Fowler also proved adept at.

The final parallel between the two players is more maudlin. A 1961 auto accident sidelined Venturi, and when he came back his game lacked any of its former productivity. With his game in decline, Venturi’s mental state also fell.

That lack of confidence especially showed up in his Major appearances, or lack of same. He did tie for ninth at the 1962 Masters, but failed to even qualify for any of the three U.S. Opens between 1961 and 1963. He played in two PGAs during that span, but never finished among the top 30.

It was not clear, especially to Venturi, that he would ever play serious tournament golf again.

Following his 2018 victory at the Waste Management, Fowler’s game also fell into decline, although his seemed to be driven less by physical ailments and more by swing doubts. In 2017 he ranked second on Tour in stroke average. By 2021 he had fallen to 134th.

During the 2017 season, Fowler’s earnings in ‘official money’ exceeded $6 million. By 2020, he was under $1 million.

Whether one final parallel can be drawn hinges on Fowler’s performance during Sunday’s final round. History records that Venturi, who only qualified for the 1964 U.S. Open by surviving regional and sectional eliminations, overcame the dismissive attitudes by all the game’s so-called knowledgeables to win the championship in the stifling heat of Congressional.

It is not necessary to recall the details of that victory here; if you’re unfamiliar with the story, view the video synopses of it on Youtube.

Good Rickie vs. Bad Rickie. dark. Next

On Sunday, Rickie Fowler has a chance to complete his own Venturi-esque comeback story.

Stifling heat isn’t likely to be the obstacle; rather, that will be provided by co-leader Wyndham Clark, along with Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, and a phalanx of other close contenders.

It will be interesting to see whether Rickie Fowler can withstand the heat those contenders generate.