Venturi's legacy extends far beyond the microphone

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Ken Venturi excelled as a player, but his work as a broadcaster helped golf become a major television sport.
October 09, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

To millions of golf fans who know him mainly by voice, Ken Venturi is the comfortable presence who arrived in their living rooms for 35 years, beamed live by CBS Sports golf broadcasts from the world's garden spots like Pebble Beach Golf Links, Riviera Country Club, Miami's Doral Resort and Spa and, of course, the Augusta National Golf Club each year at The Masters.

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Calm, unruffled and authoritative insights rolled off Venturi's tongue each Saturday and Sunday like waves on the beach. The effect was a stress-free backdrop that brought focus to the tension unfolding on the screen. Mixing in yarns about Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson and Bobby Jones with observations about dealing with pressure and what a golfer might be thinking, Venturi was careful not to take sandpaper to the raw nerve-endings inherent to performers in the solitary sport.

Venturi's relaxed authority led to the longest tenure of any network analyst -- sports or otherwise -- in broadcast television history. That's nearly a World Golf Hall of Fame achievement in itself. When you consider that he stuttered so badly as a child that doctors told his mother he would never speak normally, the only question about Venturi's addition this week to the Class of 2013 inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame could well be, "What took so long?"

That's not to imply that Venturi is asking that. Quite the contrary. His first reaction to Monday's announcement was, "It's just an honor. The greatest reward in life is to be remembered, and I thank the World Golf Hall of Fame for remembering me."

An important thing to remember about Venturi is that before television made him a celebrity, he was a player. That would be with a capital P. Even casual golf fans are aware of Venturi's 1964 U.S. Open victory at Congressional marked by his 36-hole battle waged in the searing summer heat of Washington D.C.

That struggle against a formidable field and his own self-doubt have obscured, for many, his eventful early career that started early for Venturi, a San Francisco native. He won the first of three prestigious San Francisco City Championships -- an event played for the past 86 years that has attracted such Bay Area golf luminaries as Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Bob Rosburg and George Archer -- as a teenager. He won the California State Amateur twice, and attracted the notice of Byron Nelson, who became his longtime instructor.

Before long he was being touted as the next great player on the PGA TOUR.

It was during the all-too-brief career of just 10 years on TOUR that Venturi's life was shaped with the life experiences -- very high highs, very low lows -- that would bring piercing insight to his later career on TV. It began with his near-win, as an amateur, at the 1956 Masters, when he held the 54-hole lead by four strokes only to shoot 80 in the final round.

He had expected to play that final round paired with Nelson, who was the defending champion. But Masters founder Bob Jones and Tournament Chairman Cliff Roberts decided to go against the tradition of pairing the third-round leader with the defending champion, believing it would tarnish the victory should Venturi win. He was paired instead with Sam Snead, and collapsed.

Nevertheless, after turning pro later in 1956, Venturi's rise was meteoric, with two wins in 1957, four more in 1958, two more in '59 and two more in '60.

Ten victories by the age of 29 is something few players have attained on TOUR, and the fast success led to some ill-advised swing changes, a sense of entitlement that rankled some of Venturi's closest friends and not surprisingly, a four-year drought ensued.

It was the desire to get longer off the tee that led to Venturi's self-made changes. He admitted as much. But he stubbornly resisted reversing the changes, and his play deteriorated. He found himself having to beg for sponsor exemptions. It was a humbling experience, one that he would later recount to Sports Illustrated for the 1964 Sportsman of the Year issue commemorating his dramatic comeback for the U.S. Open win.

"I was not being asked to the Masters," he told SI. "That was the killer. I had almost won the Masters as an amateur in 1956. I nearly had it won again in 1960. I had believed I would always be invited to the Masters. 'This is the bottom of the bottom of the barrel,' I thought. Another quarter of an inch lower and I would be out in the dirt."

But he found something, dug it out of the dirt, as his friend and mentor Hogan would say. Two months later, he won the Open. Ignoring his doctor's warning that he might die if he played the final 18 holes -- "It would be better than the way I've been living," he remembered saying, -- Venturi went out and finished what he had started, following his morning 66 with a 70.

Eight pounds lighter than he was when he began the day, nearly collapsing from dehydration, he walked deliriously up the 72nd hole to a standing ovation.

"Hold your head up, Ken," he remembered Joseph Dey, the executive director of the USGA telling him. "You're a champion now." Venturi had become the toast of the game again. Feted at Toots Shor in Manhattan, called out by Carol Channing from the stage of "Hello Dolly" on Broadway.

But not for long. After winning three more events in the next two years, Venturi was hit by carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists.

He underwent numerous surgeries to correct the disorder, but was told by doctors he would never be able to play competitive golf at the same level he had reached. This time they were right. After the 1966 season, at the age of 35, he was off the TOUR.

But not out of golf. On Monday evening, Venturi was remembering how his friend and colleague at CBS, Jack Whitaker, had introduced him at a banquet just before the CBS days began. He quoted Whitaker, "Fate has a way of bending the twig and fashioning a man to his better instincts."

As to whether he was better on TV than he would have been had he been able to complete his golf career, Venturi was not certain. "I wouldn't trade being anybody in the whole world," he said. "The one I think about is, I wonder what I could have done if I hadn't lost the use of my hands."

It would have been hard to do better than a World Golf Hall of Fame career. And when it's all tallied up, that's what he did.

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.