Ken Venturi smiles after winning the U.S. Open golf championship...

Ken Venturi smiles after winning the U.S. Open golf championship at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. (June 20, 1964) Credit: AP

BETHESDA, Md.

It must feel like being in a sauna with no vents, or inside a locked, sun-baked car with no windows open. That is what it must feel like to lead a major championship in the final round.

That has to explain why Rory McIlroy melted so completely in the Masters, why Nick Watney wilted at the 2010 PGA, why Dustin Johnson got so overcooked at the U.S. Open last year. Yes, that must be it. The heat just gets to be too much.

Except that those guys and others who have faded down the stretch in recent years have no idea what heat really is. Being spread out in the locker room with a doctor telling you that heat exhaustion could kill you if you go out and play the last 18 holes, now that is real heat.

That is what Ken Venturi faced 47 years ago, at Congressional Country Club, the very course at which the Open will be held this week. Venturi is here, making appearances for the U.S. Golf Association, doing interviews, having lunch with wounded veterans and relishing the fact that he lived through the most stifling, exhilarating day of his career.

"The temperature was like 104 and the humidity was high," Venturi said Monday, recalling whatever he could about the day he went low. He shot 66 and 70 in his two rounds -- the last time the U.S. Open finished with 36 holes on a Saturday. Most vivid for him was what happened in between. It was a locker room visit from Dr. John Everett, a Congressional member.

"He says, 'I suggest that you don't go out. It could be fatal.' I looked up at him and I said, 'Well, it's better than the way I've been living,' " the former champion said.

Venturi said Monday that he had been unable to shake off injuries from an auto accident in 1961 and was playing so poorly that he nearly quit. "I got an invite to Westchester, which was two weeks before the Open, by Bill Jennings, who owned the Rangers. If I hadn't gone there, I'd have gone back in the automobile business with Eddie Lowery, selling cars," he said.

He was fueled by desperation and, according to Sports Illustrated's story a few days later, cooled by counseling from a priest who had been coaching him to not get so overwrought by circumstances. As sultry afternoon turned to sultry evening, Venturi just kept going. He walked slowly to his ball (with the consent of USGA official Joe Dey) and staggered through No. 18. That's hole No. 18, to match his 18th salt tablet of the day. Back then, salt tablets were considered the only defense against heat exhaustion.

"Today, you know what they say? That could kill you," Venturi said.

Something inside him kept him going long enough to make that final putt and say, "My God, I won the Open." That was when his system shut down. He didn't have the energy to fetch the ball from the hole, he allowed his playing companion, 21-year-old Raymond Floyd to do it for him (22 years before Floyd won his own Open).

"When he put it in my hands and I looked back, the young man was crying. And I lost it then, too. I'll never forget it as long as I live," Venturi said.

Then, 47 years later, he choked up again.

What does any of this have to do with modern golfers having trouble closing the deal? I'm not sure. But there has to be a lesson in digging deep, in wanting something so badly that you're beyond caring.

As former Open champion and current ESPN analyst Andy North said last week, "You have to want to be there. You have to relish the fact that your stomach is upside down and you didn't sleep very well."

Luckily for all concerned, only 18 holes are scheduled for Sunday, the forecast is not severe and there is not a salt tablet in sight. What remains to be seen is who can beat the heat.