The players know him just as we do. They know Ken Venturi's deep
voice, his customary sayings, the triumphant moment of his
playing career. He's been announcing golf since 1968, 35 years,
all with CBS. The players grew up listening to him. On Sunday
afternoon, Venturi's final day in the broadcast booth, many of
the players paid tribute to him. As they came off the 18th green
at the TPC at Avenel, on the outskirts of the nation's capital,
they put aside their bogeys and frustration and eagerness to
split town, looked up at the CBS tower looming above and waved
The first salute came at about half-past three, 30 minutes into
the broadcast. Venturi, working beside his surrogate son, Jim
Nantz, their backs to the green, didn't notice the gesture. A
production assistant tapped Venturi's elbow. The announcer popped
out of his chair, leaned out an open window and waved back. He
returned to his seat and mouthed the words, "Who was that?"
"Joe Durant," the p.a. whispered, identifying the journeyman pro
who caught fire briefly last year.
Venturi is a man who, by his own admission, cries at
groundbreakings. When the name Joe Durant reached his ears, he
pursed his lips and nodded solemnly, as Walter Cronkite of CBS
News did at the great rocket launches and funerals of the 1960s.
Outside the culture of golf, nobody would get Venturi. If you
ask him about his reading habits, he assumes you want to know
how he reads greens. Venturi has lived his life in the sanctuary
of the game. "Kenny's golf," Jeff Sluman said in a taped
tribute. "That's what he's all about."
June 9, 2002
Nobody has ever confused Venturi with Johnny Miller, his
counterpart at NBC, whose candor sometimes infuriates the
players but who is forever teaching the subtleties of the pro
game to his duffer audience with a brilliant torrent of words.
Venturi is a recovering stammerer. Talking, oddly enough, is not
his strong suit. His commentary--little bursts of a dozen or so
loosely connected words--has always been rooted in passion. He
became an icon by being in our living rooms one weekend after
another, by being reliable, predictable and comfortable. He'd
like to have that one again.... You couldn't walk it out there
any better.... He'll take his par and walk away quietly....
That's class. Of the new Kemper Insurance Open champion, Bob
Estes, Venturi said, "You won't find a nicer young man."
Fifteen or so times a year for decades now, Venturi has been
identifying the Tour's nicest young men--which is amazing
because a guy can easily get on Venturi's wrong side. The
players he likes kick the sand off their shoes upon leaving a
bunker, mark their balls expertly, remove their caps before
shaking hands. "He's the most relentlessly consistent person
I've ever met," says David Feherty, who has worked with Venturi
for six years. "He either likes you or he doesn't, and the
chances are good that he doesn't." Venturi has lasted by telling
us only about the players he does. He's lasted, he said last
week, by never telling his bosses what to do.
He plans everything. Retiring midseason at an ordinary Tour
event with an unspectacular field on a course without much
history made all the sense in the world to Venturi, who can
close his eyes and see the movie of his life on the dark side of
his eyelids. He first came to suburban Washington in 1958, to
play golf with the president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. They played
at Burning Tree, where Venturi has been a member since 1980 and
where he took many of his meals last week. He won his U.S. Open,
as every golf junkie knows, at neighboring Congressional, in
1964, playing the final 36 holes in a single day through
sweltering heat, reciting in victory the immortal words, "My
God, I've won the Open." In 2000 Venturi was the captain of the
winning U.S. Presidents Cup team, 25 miles southwest of
Congressional and Avenel at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in
Lake Manassas, Va. "If I hadn't won the Open, I wouldn't have
had my career in TV," Venturi said last week. "Washington has
been very good to me."
Up close, you see his features the way you cannot on TV: his
bright blue eyes, silver hair, ruddy skin, thin waist. Most golf
lifers look shopworn at Venturi's age (71), but Kenny, as
everyone at CBS calls him, still looks as if he could go 36. His
style is antichic, and it has served him well. He started
wearing Sansabelt trousers in the '60s and has remained loyal to
the beltless slacks ever since, right through last weekend,
loyalty being one of his strong suits.
He remains loyal to Frank Chirkinian, the legendary and retired
CBS producer who first hired him. The so-called ayatollah, who
came to Washington to be with Venturi last week, remains loyal
to him. For years--through the '70s and '80s and into the
'90s--you would see Chirkinian and Venturi and Pat Summerall,
all wearing sport coats, holding court at a good hotel bar as
another Saturday night on Tour came and went. As rat packs go,
they may not have been Sinatra, Martin and Davis, all men
Venturi knew, but they had a certain manly flair and they clung
to it, even as the rest of the nation began to worship androgyny
and shopping malls.
During a break on Sunday's Kemper telecast, Jerry Pate, visiting
the booth to pay his respects to his fellow U.S. Open winner,
sang a few bars of Bennie and the Jets, the old Elton John hit,
in duet with Nantz. Venturi paid no attention. The song is
outside his experience. Later, when the telecast closed with the
Sinatra anthem My Way, Venturi's eyes welled up. Venturi doesn't
know Elton John. Sinatra gave away the bride when Venturi
married Beau, who died in 1997, in 1972 and paid for the
wedding. What Venturi knows, he knows firsthand.
Venturi is not light on his feet verbally, never has been.
During another commercial break Gary McCord riffed humorously
about verbicide, the willful killing of a verb. Venturi doesn't
get stuff like that. His talent is to keep it simple. During
another commercial the conversation turned to Bobby Clampett's
plans to play in a U.S. Open qualifier. "Just drive it in the
fairway, hit it on the green, make some putts," Venturi said.
"That's all there is to it." In other words, that's what worked
for him. On air Venturi paid tribute to Pate, a former CBS
announcer, by saying, "He's been a great friend, but he still
has that beautiful swing." That doesn't mean that most of
Venturi's great friends lose their beautiful swings. It's just
the way he talks.
With Venturi's retirement, daily Tour life has lost its last
link to an era that was both more glamorous and more
rough-and-tumble. Venturi has been prominent in the game for
nearly a half century. Francis Ouimet, winner of the 1913 U.S.
Open, was Venturi's stockbroker. Ouimet's caddie in that Open,
Eddie Lowery, was Venturi's backer when he played amateur golf.
He was well acquainted with Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts,
the founders of Augusta National. He was taught by Byron Nelson
and played often with Ben Hogan. Many of today's players
understand and appreciate how much golf Venturi's life spans.
"When I was growing up, the Masters marked the start of the
season, and Ken was the voice of the Masters," says Durant, who
knows Venturi as many of the players do, from a distance. "I'd
stand over a putt and say, 'If he makes this, he wins the
Masters.' The voice was Ken's. Then you get out here, and he's
watching you play. That's a thrill. Sometimes you think, Boy, I
hope he saw that one. Or, Please tell me he didn't see that one.
I didn't meet him until I got invited into the broadcast both.
You get to know him because you're playing well. It's something
you have to earn."
The best work Venturi ever did was at the Masters in 1996, the
year Greg Norman squandered a six-shot lead, and Nick Faldo won
by five. Venturi was uniquely qualified to cover Norman's
collapse. In 1956 Venturi, still an amateur, had a four-shot
lead entering the final round at Augusta. He shot 80 and
finished second by a stroke to Jackie Burke. Venturi knows what
it's like to have it all slip away. He praised Norman for the
dignity with which he handled the loss. When Venturi captained
the U.S. Presidents Cup team, Norman was the headliner on the
International side. When the USS Cole was attacked a week before
the match, and 12 American lives were lost, Venturi urged his
team to wear black ribbons. Norman had his teammates do the
same. They are similar men, men who understand gestures and
symbols. They both would have worn green jackets well.
When Norman was leading the Kemper through 36 holes last week,
Venturi was openly rooting for him, at least during the
commercials. But the Shark, now 47, faded on the weekend and
finished 13th. On the final hole his approach shot looked like a
beauty in the air. "He stiffed it for you," Nantz said to his
partner, off air. But the ball took a bad bounce and finished 10
paces from the hole, and Norman needed three putts to conclude
his weekend's work.
Norman retrieved his ball from the hole, looked up at Venturi
and doffed his cap. Venturi stood at his open window and waved
back. From a distance of 50 feet, Norman tossed his ball to
Venturi. Venturi signed it and tossed it back. All Norman needed
to do on the weekend was shoot a couple of rounds of 70, and he
would have won on Tour for the first time since '97. But as he
came off the final green, three-putt and all, Norman remembered
Venturi. "That's class," Venturi said.
Forty minutes later Venturi was signing off for the final time,
citing something his father, a man who sold net twine to
California fishermen, told him as a boy. "The greatest gift in
life is to be remembered," Venturi told millions of viewers.
"Thank you for remembering me. God bless you and God bless
The red light went off. Venturi and Nantz hugged. The CBS crew,
mostly working men in T-shirts and shorts, gathered under a tent
and made a last toast in a weekend of many. Venturi wore his CBS
blazer. He wore it as he left the course, was still wearing it
when he returned to his hotel. For the first time, he'd be
wearing it home.
"He either likes you or he doesn't," says Feherty of Venturi,
"and the chances are good that he doesn't."
"Sometimes you think, Boy, I hope Kenny saw that one," says
Durant. "Or, Please tell me he didn't see that one."