By Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM columnist
If timing is everything, then Ken Venturi really did have it all. And like all the great ones his was impeccable.
Sometimes he made the choice, like when he declined a tempting draft offer from the New York Yankees and turned his focus back solely on the pursuit of golf. Other times it was made for him, as when chronic injuries to his hands prematurely ended his playing career in 1967 and CBS Sports put him in the 18th tower the next year to begin his unparalleled 35-year run as its lead golf analyst.
Imagine that. A man, whose childhood stuttering was so severe that doctors told his mother he would never pronounce his own name, makes a name for himself in broadcasting? As network TV’s longest-running analyst?
That was Ken Venturi. Throughout 82 years of a well-lived life, with exceptions too few to mention, he always seemed to do things right, make the right move, hit the right shot, say the right thing. The “complicated, old fox of a man,” as his friend, David Feherty put it, the unfailingly urbane man from San Francisco, was like the great Golden Gate in his hometown: a bridge spanning eras, going miles and always coming back around to the same, familiar spot.
Thus, it was fitting on Saturday, the day after Venturi passed away at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., to see CBS devote the first 15 minutes of its HP Byron Nelson Championship coverage to honoring Nelson’s student and great friend, Ken Venturi. The network had done this once before in its history, in 1997, when Ben Hogan, another of Ken’s closest friends and mentors, passed away.
And it wasn’t at all surprising to see PGA TOUR players who weren’t yet born when Venturi won the 1964 U.S. Open – most of whom had never met him – also remembering him over the weekend.
Venturi, no doubt, would have smiled at the red ribbons affixed to the flat-brimmed caps and micro-fibered shirts of PGA TOUR players like 26-year-old Keegan Bradley, the 2011 HP Nelson champion and this year’s runner-up. When Bradley was asked about Venturi on Saturday, he responded by recounting a swing tip that had originated with Nelson and was then passed down to him.
“He’s a mentor of my coach, Jim McLean, big‑time mentor,” Bradley said. “That’s his guy. The year that I won, we worked on something where I took the club away, against the wall, to not take it too far outside. Byron Nelson passed that along to Ken Venturi, who passed it along to Jim McLean.”
Who passed it along to Keegan Bradley, who then went on to call Venturi “an icon of the game” as both a player and TV analyst, and as “a great guy.”
This golf generational line that began with Nelson called to mind what Venturi said in an interview last October, on the day it was announced that he would, finally, be enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
“I was taught by Byron Nelson and I asked him one time, ‘How could I ever repay you for all you've done for me?’ ” Venturi recalled on a conference call. “He said, ‘Ken, be good to the game and give back.’ ”
Jim Nantz knows very well just how much Venturi gave back. The CBS golf anchor, colleague and friend dating back more than two decades wrote Venturi a letter a little over a month ago when it had become apparent Ken was too ill to make it to the Hall of Fame induction.
“Preparing for your induction, I was overwhelmed while considering the staggering amount of work you have done for others,” Nantz wrote. “For the blind. For people who have had stuttering problems like your own. For battered mothers and sick children. For black golfers like Charlie Sifford who couldn't get in tournament clubhouses way back when. For struggling players looking for help with their swings. For wet-eared TV broadcasters.”
Nantz also recalled a memorable moment from his first Masters telecast in 1986, the year of Jack Nicklaus’ astounding sixth Masters victory at the age of 46. Nantz and Venturi were headed back to the CBS compound in a golf cart in the quiet aftermath of that day when Venturi turned to him and said, “Son, how old are you?”
Nantz wrote that he replied, “I’m 26, Mr. Venturi.” And he went on, “And you said, ‘Well, let me tell you something. You’re going to become the first commentator to work 50 Masters tournaments. But you’re never going to see a better tournament than this one.’”
That is probably true. It also is one of the few Venturi predictions to be published. Although it has become very much the vogue thing to do in today’s golf live tournament telecasts, predicting an outcome, or criticizing a player’s shot or club selection, or setup, or tempo or mental acumen, was not something Venturi engaged in.
“I always figured that you would never go wrong if you treat every player out there how you’d like them to treat you,” Venturi said in an interview last October. “Now they’ll say, ‘That’s a dumb, stupid shot.’ No. No. I say, ‘That’s not what he was looking for.’ Or, ‘He’d like to have that shot over.’
“We all know it’s a bad shot. You don’t have to tell everybody.”
Last Saturday, Keegan Bradley’s thoughts on Ken Venturi concluded with, “He will be missed by everybody.”
He already is. All sorts of people are missing Venturi today. There is his family, of course, his wife Kathleen, and his sons, Matthew and Tim. And there are all these other people from his extended golf family, like anyone who had a chance to spend any time with him, whether players, officials, colleagues at CBS, broadcasters, writers, TV viewers, golf fans. Anyone who knows how hard he fought to overcome stuttering, how he battled the physical ailments that ultimately cut short his career and yet still went on to become one of golf’s great gentlemen.
He had a way of impressing some very discriminating and disparate people. He was pals with Frank Sinatra, whom he called “Francis” and by whom he was called “Kenneth.” He said Byron Nelson was like “a second father to me,” and when Ben Hogan did his last extended interview he insisted that Venturi would be the only one to ask the questions.
A 21-year-old Raymond Floyd had tears – rather than forged steel – in his eyes after playing alongside Venturi at the 1964 U.S. Open in 100-plus degree temperatures at Congressional Country Club. Floyd pulled Venturi’s final putt out of the hole and later summed up the win as, “one of the most heroic things I have ever seen.’’
Nicklaus posted his own thoughts on Ken Venturi on his Facebook page. They may sum it up as well as any can.
“We all knew what a wonderful player Ken Venturi was, and how he fashioned a second successful career as an announcer. But far more important than how good he was at playing the game or covering it, Ken was my friend. Ken was fortunate in that the game of golf gave him so much, but without question, Ken gave back far more to the game he loved than he ever gained from it."
That was how Venturi said he wanted to be remembered. He’d be very happy to know that it is just how the game’s greatest player, and many of its lesser lights, remembers him today.