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PROUD WORDS KEN VENTURI, THE 1964 OPEN CHAMPION, HAS FACED LIFE'S UPS AND DOWNS BY FOLLOWING HIS FATHER'S COMMANDMENTS

June 09, 1997
June 09, 1997

Table of Contents
June 9, 1997

Faces In The Crowd
Circus [bonus Piece]

PROUD WORDS KEN VENTURI, THE 1964 OPEN CHAMPION, HAS FACED LIFE'S UPS AND DOWNS BY FOLLOWING HIS FATHER'S COMMANDMENTS

The house is quiet. Ken Venturi is in his personal golf
museum--his small office in his comfortable home on Marco
Island, on Florida's Gulf Coast. On the walls that surround him
are his medals, his putter, pictures of him, tributes to him. An
alarm on his desk goes off. It is a quarter past eight on a
weekday night. A powerful storm is barreling across the island,
and the air is humid, and the ground is sodden, outside and in.
Even the shag carpet, a late-1970s period piece, in the living
room feels a little soggy.

This is an article from the June 9, 1997 issue Original Layout

Venturi has been in a reverie. He has been talking about the
1964 U.S. Open, which he won, at Congressional, where the
national championship will be played next week. He has been
talking about his late father, who sold nets and twine to
fishermen in San Francisco and down the coast to Monterey. He
has been remembering his father's reaction to his only child's
great triumph 33 years ago. The alarm catches the 66-year-old
Venturi off guard. His words stop. His fingers find the alarm.

"Luca, it's time for Mrs. Venturi to take her chemo pill,"
Venturi says, calling out to the Venturis' longtime live-in
housekeeper, Luca Paris.

Beau Venturi, 63, has four inoperable brain tumors. They have
robbed her of her ability to read and to sustain a conversation.
She barely sleeps at night.

When you're really good, son, they'll tell you.

The stories come fast and furious, long into the night, about
the tournaments Venturi won and the operations he endured, about
his son the banker and his son the chef, about his mother,
Ethyl, and his father, Fred, and the things that he said. He
cites his father's sayings repeatedly, as if they were his
commandments. Venturi sips his lone drink for the night. Scotch
on the rocks.

His sensibility is pure 1950s. That's when Venturi first made
his mark, as a San Francisco amateur with great hair, excellent
teeth, a working-class background and a cultured swing. He
discusses the '56 Masters--in which Venturi, then an amateur,
led by four going into the final round but shot 80 and finished
second by a shot to Jackie Burke--as if it happened last April.
When he's talking about the prominent players now in the
game--whom he covers as a golf commentator for CBS--his thoughts
get scrunched together and names sometimes get jumbled. "Greg
Woods," he says at one point. But the names from mid-century and
a little beyond flow off his lips effortlessly: Ben Hogan, Frank
Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Bobby Jones, Toots Shor, Palm Springs,
Willie Mays, Las Vegas, Bing Crosby, Dwight Eisenhower, Cliff
Roberts, Sam Snead, Joe Dey, the Cypress Point Club, Richard
Nixon, Eddie Lowery, the 21 Club, Byron Nelson. Fred Venturi.
Always, he circles back to his father. To his father and to his
wife.

"My father was a man of few words," says Venturi, whose silver
hair, exceedingly bright blue eyes and ruddy complexion are the
legacy of his Irish mother. She died in 1973, his father in
1988. "My father and I would drive down from San Francisco,"
says Venturi. "I would caddie at Cypress, and he would sell to
the fishermen, and then he'd come pick me up, six, seven o'clock
at night. I'd be sitting on the steps, waiting for him.
Sometimes we'd drive all the way home, and he'd barely say a
word. In those days I had a terrible stammer, and it was hard
for me to get a full sentence out. When my father spoke, it was
to say something meaningful. When I won a junior tournament and
started telling my father how good I was, he said, "When you're
really good, son, they'll tell you."

When you've done the right thing, son, you don't have to explain
anything to anybody.

The old stuff eats at him. In the last round of that '56
Masters, a tournament official asked Venturi whom he wanted to
play with. The custom in those days was for the third-round
leader to play with Byron Nelson. But Nelson tutored Venturi on
the swing, and Cliff Roberts and Bobby Jones, the cochairmen of
the tournament, felt it would be unfair to the rest of the field
to have teacher and pupil paired together. Venturi considered
the question of his partner and said, with youthful arrogance,
"Well, I've already played with Hogan. Let me see. How about
Snead?"

Snead it would be. Snead was quiet. He didn't encourage the
amateur, and he didn't ignore him. He simply went about his
business--while Venturi collapsed. When Venturi returned home,
Harry Heyward, a sportswriter for The San Francisco Examiner,
asked Venturi about playing with Snead and wrote a story in
which he quoted Venturi as saying he would've played better had
he been paired with someone else.

Eddie Lowery--a well-known San Francisco auto dealer and
high-stakes golfer who earned a permanent place in golf lore as
Francis Ouimet's pint-sized caddie in the 1913 U.S. Open--was
Venturi's patron and counselor. Lowery took it upon himself to
write a letter of apology, in Venturi's name, to Jones and
Roberts, for any embarrassment the newspaper story may have
caused Augusta National and its members.

Venturi says he never saw the letter, never approved the letter,
never signed the letter. Four decades later he's still fuming
about the newspaper story, which he believes intentionally
misrepresented his views, and about the letter of apology he
feels should never have been written. "Harry Heyward's long
dead," Venturi says, "but I still don't forgive him."

You don't have to be better than everybody else, you just have
to be better than you ever thought you could be.

Venturi closes his eyes, bringing to mind pictures from his
past. Here's Jack Nicklaus poolside at the Governor's Motel,
near Congressional, during the week of the 1964 U.S. Open,
swimming while wearing a Rolex watch. There's Herb Wind, the
golf writer, standing beside a tree on the 12th tee of the final
round of Venturi's Open, wearing a necktie in a sweltering
midday stew. Here's Joe Dey, the executive secretary of the
USGA, urging Venturi to stand tall, as Venturi walks, shoulders
slumped and at a funereal pace, down the final fairway, victory
just a bunker shot and a putt away.

Venturi won the '64 Open--the final Open with a 36-hole Saturday
finish--by shooting 66 before lunch and 70 in the afternoon in
100[degree] heat. As his round neared completion, the only
remaining drama lay in whether Venturi would collapse before he
finished. Tommy Jacobs finished second, four shots back.

When Venturi won the Open, he was nearly broke, his first
marriage was slowly dissolving, and most everyone thought he was
through. His early career had been brilliant. From 1957, his
rookie year on Tour, through 1960, Venturi won 10 events. In his
first five years on Tour his money rankings were 10th, 3rd,
10th, 2nd and 14th. Then came his barren period: In 1962 and
1963 he didn't win enough to pay his caddie fees or motel bills.
By May '64 he was thinking about becoming a teaching pro. Then
came June. He wasn't better than Arnold Palmer or Nicklaus, or
even Gary Player or Billy Casper. But he was better than he ever
thought he would be. A couple of years later he was better than
he ever thought he would be for a second time.

After the Open, Venturi won twice more before the end of the
season. He won Player of the Year honors and was named SI's
Sportsman of the Year. But in 1965 his hands went dead on him,
and he won just $295 on Tour. His hands had virtually no color
or strength. Often they shook uncontrollably. There were times
when he could not tee up a ball, let alone swing at it. His
fingers swelled and he had to saw off his wedding ring. He was
prescribed large doses of painkillers, then had violent episodes
during which he would turn rooms upside-down as he went through
withdrawal.

In June 1965, immediately after the Open at Bellerive in St.
Louis--where he shot 81 and 79, missing the cut by 11 shots--he
underwent major surgery on both hands for an extreme case of
carpal tunnel syndrome caused by hitting thousands of practice
balls. Seven months later Venturi won his 14th and final Tour
event, the 1966 Lucky International, played at Harding Park, the
public course in San Francisco where he had learned the game and
where his father, who had retired from the rope-and-twine
business, now worked in the pro shop.

Venturi didn't do much on the golf course after that. He didn't
need to.

You never reach another man's level by tearing him down, only by
building him up.

Venturi puts a tape of the '64 Open into a videocassette player.
For a moment, until the tape kicks in, The Jerry Springer Show
comes on. "I hate these shows, I hate them," Venturi says, and
at that moment a young man on the program says, "I believe I am
a lesbian trapped in a man's body."

In the past 33 years the world has changed in ways that don't
suit Venturi. He doesn't like the way many Tour players dress
when they go out for dinner. He doesn't like the fact that this
year's Open at Congressional will close on a par-3, and not the
par-4 that was the finishing hole in 1964. He doesn't like the
ease with which people today speak about their most private
issues.

On the tape Venturi sinks his winning putt. With his hands and
nose pointed up, he mouths the words "My god, I have won the
Open." He turns the tape off hastily.

"Don't they show the trophy presentation?" a visitor asks.

"I think I had them edit that out," Venturi says. "I don't like
Beau to have to see Conni," he adds, referring to his wife,
who's in another room, and his former wife, who lives in
Northern California.

He continues to play the tape. There has been no editing. There
is Conni Venturi--movie-star beautiful--embracing the winner.
"This is all show," Venturi says. "We're already headed for a
divorce."

The divorce would not come until 1970. In the interim Venturi
kept up appearances. In 1966 he wrote a book called Comeback,
whose dedication reads, "To my wife Conni and all the others who
kept their belief in me through the darkest hours."

The mother of his two sons is not a subject Venturi dwells on.
For much of 1963, before the Open, Venturi lived on a boat,
while Conni and the two young boys lived in the family house in
Hillsborough, 15 miles south of San Francisco. "She loves her
sons," Venturi says, finding something positive to say as he
leaves the subject for good.

Excuses, son, are crutches for the untalented.

An entire generation of golf fans know Venturi only as a voice
on television. He has worked for CBS since 1968. Venturi the
announcer is familiar and predictable, and he has many admirers.
But his thoughts often begin on one subject, the speed at which
Greg Norman turns his hips, for instance, and end on an
unrelated one, such as the balance in Tiger Woods's finishing
position. Usually, there's a link somewhere, but following
Venturi's TV sentences can be a challenge.

This tendency to wander is likely the residue of Venturi's
severe childhood stammer, which still shows up occasionally. A
stammerer, after all, is always in recovery, like the alcoholic
who doesn't drink anymore. Some stammerers become so worried
that they won't be able to get out all their words and ideas
that they become stuck on a single word. A recovering stammerer
like Venturi can struggle with the flow of an entire spoken
paragraph.

Venturi knows his thoughts don't always hold together, but he
does not lament his condition. Instead, he says, during his
three decades in the broadcast booth he has tried to improve and
to be an inspiration to the hundreds of stammerers he has
counseled over the years.

Son, you have made me very proud.

Venturi's wife is dying. It is not a secret. He hates being on
the road these days, away from her. He's supposed to be at
Congressional for the week of the Open, to make some speeches.
He's thrilled at the thought of the attention, but he wants to
be at home. When his father died, Venturi was at his bedside,
and he heard his father say the seven words above that Venturi
says "made my whole life."

And now the love of Ken Venturi's life is facing her end, with
courage and faith, embraced by love. "My Beau is my world,"
Venturi says. He first laid eyes on her in 1963, when she was a
hostess at a Palm Springs restaurant. She was wearing a red
dress. They didn't speak until 1968. They were married in 1972.
Their 25 years together have been, Venturi says, the best of his
life. "It shouldn't be happening to her," he says. "It's not
fair. I wish it were me instead." It's late at night. The house
is still. "That's what I wish."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: WALTER IOOSS JR. (2) Venturi (opposite) pored over his card after a 10-footer on the last hole clinched the Open at Congressional. [Ken Venturi; Ken Venturi putting]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Venturi (with CBS colleague Jim Nantz) has worked in the booth since 1968. [Jim Nantz and Ken Venturi]COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Venturi prefers to stay near "my world," his wife, who's dying of cancer. [Beau Venturi and Ken Venturi]