Will Rogers once said, “Long ago, when men cursed and beat the ground with sticks, it was called witchcraft. Today it’s called golf.” This fellow was the kind of player people came to watch practice. He hit shots so close to the pin, he could kick’em in. A super talented golfer, his gift was stealing par; if his putter were alive, it would rob banks. He played during a time where his woods were actually made out of wood. Through the game of golf, he learned how to focus and relax at the same time? That’s called discipline. He began to make difficult look easy and brought golf courses to their knees. But then his hands began to rob him of feeling, yet the picture taken of him nearly fifty years ago, dropping his putter and raising his hands in the air in disbelief on the 18th green at Congressional Country Club, said it all. “My God, I’ve won the Open.”
Kenneth “Ken” Venturi grew up in the Bay Area of San Francisco, California. He was born May 15, 1931. He wasn’t very tall and never weighed very much. In fact, he was so skinny it was said that his back pockets ran together. He was quiet, a bit withdrawn and lacked confidence. “When I was 13, the doctor told my mother that I would never be able to say my name or speak clearly as long as I lived, because I had an incurable stutter. So, I went out and found the loneliest sport I could find and took up golf,” said Venturi. With breathing exercises and assorted therapies for his stutter, Ken would find a way to communicate through his mouth and his driver. The isolation he sought by playing golf eventually made him famous. Young Ken played hundreds of rounds of golf at Harding Park Golf Course. He often played two balls at the same time while playing alone. He would practice drawing one ball, while trying to fade the other. “When I got to the point, I could do both consistently, I knew I was a good golfer,” exclaimed Ken. His parents understood, as they both worked in the Pro Shop. There it began for Ken Venturi, a guy who obtained confidence and clout through his golf stroke and not only played well professionally, but would go on to entertain the world of golf with his thoughts and words, while broadcasting a record 35 years for CBS Sports. Folks said he talked the way the players themselves talked. Ken Venturi’s journey took him to the World Golf Hall of Fame. The neatest thing about America is that this country loves a comeback. When he heard the news of his induction, Venturi’s response was, “The greatest reward in life is to be remembered. Thank you for remembering me.”
Early on, Venturi gained attention from the world of golf, as an amateur. He had honed his game at the feet of Byron Nelson. As a 14-year-old, Venturi idolized Nelson and followed him during the 1946 San Francisco Open. As Nelson prepared to chip onto the fifth green, Venturi leaned in and snapped a picture. Nelson politely backed away and said to the wide-eyed youngster, “Son, will you please put up that camera and back out of here?” Ken ran home to tell his mother as best he could, “Byron Nelson talked to me, Byron Nelson talked to me.” At the 1952 U.S. Amateur Championship, Ken Venturi finally met his hero, Byron Nelson. He was introduced by Eddie Lowery, a local car dealer and amateur golfer. A life-long friendship began, as Nelson took Venturi under his wing. Peggy Byron once said after her husband Byron had passed away, “It was just a precious, precious friendship. I think that if Byron could have, he would have adopted Kenny.”
Venturi attended college at San Jose State University, sold cars, and did his turn in the military in Korea and Europe. Ken began to turn heads by winning the California State Amateurs Championship in 1951 and 1956. At age 24, and as an amateur, Venturi led the 1956 Masters after three rounds. He was attempting to become the first amateur to ever win at Augusta, but it was not to be. Venturi shot an 80 in the final round and relinquished a four-shot lead to finish second to Jack Burke, Jr. Legendary golf writer, Herbert Warren Wind, wrote, “But the Masters is a drama in four acts, not three, and on the fourth day it was exit Ken Venturi and enter Jackie Burke. It was still the best performance by an amateur in the history of the Masters.” As of this writing, no amateur has ever won the Masters. He turned pro at the end of the 1956 season. Ken would come close to winning the Masters twice more in 1958 and 1960, but he finished second both times to Arnold Palmer.
Venturi won the 1964 U. S. Open Championship in triple-digit heat and suffered from dizziness and dehydration. He was advised to quit, but continued while suffering the effects of heatstroke. It would be the only Major golf tournament he would win during his career. In 1964, Venturi won Sports Illustrated Sportsman-of-the-Year Award and was elected the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Player of the Year. In 1965, Ken played on the winning Ryder Cup Team and then later in 1996, he appeared in the movie, Tin Cup. He portrayed himself as a commentator. Venturi also received the 1998 Old Tom Morris Award from the Golf Superintendents Association of America. Venturi also lent his name to several instructional golf schools and helped redesign the Eagle Creek Golf & Country Club located in Naples, Florida. In the year 2000, he was selected as the non-playing captain of the President’s Cup Team. He also owns a Golden Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars. All in all, Venturi played professionally for ten years, winning 15 events, and retired in 1967.
Ken Venturi joined CBS Sports in 1968 as an analyst on their golf telecast. He was paired with Pat Summerall until Pat retired in 1994. Jim Nantz joined the CBS Sports broadcasting line-up in 1986 and became Venturi’s partner. They shared 17 seasons together, while working approximately 20 tournaments a year.
Ken Venturi, the voice of golf for 35 years, died in the hospital on Friday, May 17, 2013. Ken suffered from an infection in his spine and intestines and also developed a case of pneumonia. His death came eleven days after his May 6, 2013 induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Life like golf is filled with many hazards, but the will to live is a powerful thing. Some people think that to be strong is to never feel pain. In reality the strongest people are the ones who feel it, understand it, and accept it. That was Ken Venturi. “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway,” said John Wayne. Although Ken Venturi had overcome stuttering, carpel tunnel syndrome in both wrists, a car accident in 1961, alcoholism, prostate cancer in 2000, and quintuple bypass surgery in 2006, he was loved; and he loved the game of golf right back. Venturi had always said that if Byron Nelson had taught him anything it was this: “Be good to the game and give back.” Judging from the outpouring of love from the world of professional golf, I believe Ken got it right. He retired from CBS Sports in June of 2002, after the Kemper Open, and was living with his third wife, Kathleen, in their Rancho Mirage home in California. It has been said that his home resembled a professional golf museum. Venturi was 82 years old. He had many pals from the world of entertainment. Dean Martin, Jerry Vale, and Jack Jones were just a few. Venturi called Frank Sinatra a dear friend and once roomed with him, while living in San Francisco.
Interestingly, Venturi died on his one-time golf broadcasting partner, Jim Nantz’s, 54th birthday, and one month and one day after his original golf broadcasting partner, Pat Summerall, who was also 82 when he passed. Venturi divorced his first wife, Conni, in 1970. They had two sons together, Tim and Matt. His second wife, Beau, died in 1997.
Venturi had many charities he was involved with. He was building a home for abused woman and children in Florida. He traveled every off-season to Ireland, to help raise money for mentally-challenged children, and worked hard on programs to bring golf to the vision-impaired. His Guiding Eyes Golf Classic has raised over six million dollars.
Like most of us, Ken Venturi had many stories to tell. He once told how he opened his balcony window of his hotel room and hit a dozen or so balls out into the night, before the final round of the 1959 Los Angeles Open. “It must have worked,” he said. “I shot a 63 the next day and won the tournament.” When Byron Nelson was unable to be the honorary starter for the 1983 Masters, he asked Ken Venturi to fill in for him. “Of course I agreed,” said Ken. Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, and Ken Venturi teed off together. This next excerpt was told in an article written for Golf Digest. Later in his life, after retirement, Venturi often played a few holes in the mornings, alone. “It reminded me of the way it all started,” he said.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Ken Venturi always looked up at the stars.
One of his ways of giving back was by never charging a dime for a golf lesson to anyone. Nice shot Kenny. Save me a tee time.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness","Remembered Greatness" and “Greatness Continued” are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.