Jim Nantz Q&A, Part I: World Golf Hall of Fame inductees Venturi, Couples

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Ken Venturi and Fred Couples are among this year's inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
May 04, 2013
Brian Wacker

Editor's note: On Monday evening, longtime CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz will present friends Fred Couples and Ken Venturi at their enshrinement ceremonies for induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame. The following is Part I of an interview with Nantz, conducted on April 25.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- It is a Thursday afternoon and the voice on the other end of the phone just spent the last few weeks filling living rooms across America from the Masters, NCAA Final Four and the Super Bowl.

Does Jim Nantz have the best job in America? That’s one of the questions we discussed during a 45-minute telephone conversation from Nantz’s home in Pebble Beach, Calif., where he is overlooking the seventh green and he moved to full-time in 2012.

But for all the Masters and Final Fours and Super Bowls and Emmys and five National Sportscaster of the Year awards accumulated over his last few decades at CBS, when the topic turns to Fred Couples and Ken Venturi, whom he’ll present at Monday night's World Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony, there’s a rare crack in that otherwise buttery baritone.

A few minutes in, Nantz divulges that Venturi won’t be able to make it to the ceremony because he’s been in the hospital for more than a month because of a series of episodes. “He's not a young man, and he's having a hard time coming out of it,” Nantz said of the 81-year-old Venturi.

In a two-part Q&A, Nantz discusses, among other things, what it will mean to induct two of his closest friends into golf’s biggest shrine, what might surprise you about each of them, his most memorable moment in the booth and his lowest. 

PGATOUR.COM: You’ve known Couples since you were teammates and roommates in the late 1970s at the University of Houston; Venturi you worked with for 17 years at CBS before he retired in 2002. What have those two relationships meant to you?

JIM NANTZ: One is like a surrogate father and one is like a brother. Lo and behold, two guys that have been very important figures in my life go into the World Golf Hall of Fame on the same night, and they both independently ask me to be their presenter. I don't take that responsibility or that invitation lightly. It's a wonderful representation of friendship, and I'm just very thrilled that on that night I'll be able to stand there and deliver testimonials about two people who have profoundly influenced my life. It's going to be an emotional thing kind of going through this process of standing on a stage and trying to summarize their lives and careers.

PGATOUR.COM: How did you and Freddie first strike up your friendship?

NANTZ: We were just kids. I was 18, he was about a month-and-a-half from turning 18. We were incoming freshmen for Dave Williams, the legendary University of Houston golf coach, and coach Williams brought seven freshmen into a room that first day, which was August 29th, 1977, and asked us to stand and recite our names and what our goal in life was. I was the first to stand, and I certainly wasn't that comfortable having to stand up in front of strangers and pontificate about what was burning inside of me, but I said ‘My name is Jim Nantz, and I'm from Colt’s Neck, N.J. -- that's where I had gone to high school -- and I said my goal is to one day work for CBS. I'd like to one day host the Masters telecast. About three freshmen later, Fred stood up and said ‘I'm Fred Couples, I'm from Seattle, Wash., and one day I'd like to win the Masters.’

I think part of the reason it happened is we were always telling each other it was going to happen. We lifted each other on our shoulders and there was just a tremendous positive energy that was hanging around all of us when we were in school. And we've been fortunate and blessed enough to have these dreams come true.

PGATOUR.COM: What about Ken?

NANTZ: When I joined CBS in the fall of 1985, I was told that Frank Chirkinian was going to have me as a part of his golf team the following season with the West Coast Swing coming. I knew all about Frank Chirkinian and I knew that the Ayatollah was the man behind CBS golf: Ken Venturi, Ben Wright, that whole core group that had been in my living room for a long, long time. Little did I know when I was meeting them that they would all become my friends and be central figures in my life.

I got to induct Frank Chirkinian parenthetically a couple years ago into the World Golf Hall of Fame.  He died two months before the induction date but he knew he was going in and he asked me to be there to accept it for him two months after his death.

Kenny and I started working with the CBS golf team in '86, six months after I joined the network, and we worked together for 17 years. He was just a tremendous friend and mentor. We spent a lot of time on the road together talking about life, talking about golf, hearing all the stories of Kenny's days of golf and hanging out with the Rat Pack and his incredible bond and brotherhood he had with Frank Sinatra. He was a tremendous guy to sit down and have dinner with because his stories were just riveting. I know he retired in June of 2002, but the friendship is never going to retire. He’s an awesome guy with just a remarkable life of achievement. Here's a man that as a young boy couldn't even say his own name because he had a stammering problem that was so significant his mom took him to see specialists. The mere fact that he still holds the record of the longest running lead analyst in sports television history is an incredible testament to Ken's will and determination.

PGATOUR.COM: What would people be surprised to know about Fred?

NANTZ: I knew his mom and dad. They've both been gone for quite a while, but they’re just really sweet people. For them to have this child that turned into this international, beloved golf star, I don't think they ever could have imagined it would ever be that big, that his life would be so big. When you take his talents and you take his magnetism, man, the world fell in love with him, and rightfully so. The neat thing is he never tried to make that happen. He's just really a younger version of his dad. His dad worked for the Seattle parks and recreation department. Humble beginnings. They weren't poor but they were a family that worked hard and had a lot to be proud of. It’s just been an amazing journey, to go from Jefferson Park to be a known sports figure anywhere he walks in the world, to now this coronation happening in St. Augustine where he enters the land of golf immortality.

PGATOUR.COM: What would surprise people about Ken?

NANTZ: Kenny was emphatic about not getting publicity for it, but his life was dedicated to philanthropy in a lot of ways. He had so many different charities he was involved with, and it was under the radar. He was building a home for abused women and children in Florida. He was every offseason in September traveling over to Ireland and throwing something for the mentally challenged kids in Ireland. He did it for 20‑something years. He was a huge figure in bringing golf to blind people and hitching his wagon to Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

He moved mountains, and people didn't know that about him. We would go into a town and there would be a young person physically handicapped suffering from something and somehow there was a connection between Ken and this young person, and there was the child with a parent sitting in our tower. I can think of kids in Hartford, and when we did the tournament in Colorado, and when we swung through Texas and you'd see these kids sitting off to the side of the camera when Kenny was on camera. He basically was giving them a Make a Wish-like experience, but it wasn't being channeled through that foundation, it was somehow coming through Kenny's own goodness.

I remember there was a piece of machinery at Loma Linda (Calif.) Hospital that was one of the forerunners to really being able to treat some forms of cancer. They had that piece of equipment in large part because of money that Kenny had raised through various charitable events throughout Southern California and the Palm Springs area. That machine by the way ended up being the machine that would reach Paul Azinger when he had cancer in his shoulder.

PGATOUR.COM: I’m sure the induction ceremony will be emotional for you. Can you give us a hint on what you might say?

NANTZ: Well they started to put the presenters on tape but then you're allowed to say something out of the tape, so I recorded both of their introductions (two weeks ago). I'm not sure what I'm going to say live. I know this: It will be heart felt, whatever it is.

Now, this is what else you need to know. Ken isn’t going to be there. He has been in the hospital for over a month. He’s going to be OK, but he's had a whole series of episodes that have happened. It started with an infection that was running through his body and was very difficult to get control of, led later to an issue with a hole in his stomach that required surgery. He's not a young man, and he's having a hard time coming out of it. His not being there is going to make it tough. I've heard him speak so many times, I think I could cobble together the best of, what I've heard from Ken through the years, and tell those stories. But I'm going to be very brief, because he's going to get through this, and Jack Peter, the curator of the Hall of Fame, is such a nice man, he's already told (wife) Kathleen Venturi that when Kenny is well next year, he can come by and come back and make his acceptance speech at the 2014 Hall of Fame inductions.

But I'm going to have to kind of play that one for what the moment feels like and where Kenny is. I'm envisioning right now he's going to be in all likelihood still in the hospital and hopefully watching this on television, and I'll just look into the camera and tell him that we love him and we all are anxious for him to come back here next year so we get to hear his acceptance speech.