Ken Venturi, who died last Friday at age 82, was golf. He was the voice of the game on CBS for 35 years. Before that, he played the Tour—sometimes flush, near-busted at others, often hurt—for only 10 years on a full-time basis but won 14 events with an athletic and stylish swing that was a perfect extension of his character. The grueling nobility of the U.S. Open was defined for all time with the words he muttered upon winning it in 1964: "My God, I've won the Open." He lived a golfing life.
Venturi's generation—golf's greatest—is deep on its back nine, many of its defining figures already gone. His broadcast-booth partner, Pat Summerall, died last month. His boss and patron at CBS, the maverick producer Frank Chirkinian, died in 2011. Venturi was the last survivor of the Match, a private big-stakes 1956 money game at Cypress Point in which a pair of hot-shot amateurs, Venturi and his friend Harvie Ward, played two titans of the professional game, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, in a now legendary birdiefest. Three months later, still an amateur, Venturi led the Masters through 54 holes, carded a Sunday 80 and finished second.
At that time he was a brash and handsome 24-year-old car salesman and Army veteran. He had a gorgeous wife and electric eyes. For a while he was the darling of the golf establishment. Venturi was an American archetype: a working-class kid who made a difficult thing look easy, who discovered the good life but never forgot where he came from, much like his pal Frank Sinatra. Sinatra's name came up often in Venturi's storytelling, and Venturi's surrogate son, the broadcaster Jim Nantz, can't think of Venturi without thinking of "My Way."
In his San Francisco boyhood Venturi had a serious stammering problem and was drawn to golf because he could play it alone. He logged hundreds of rounds at Harding Park, a city course where his parents worked in the pro shop. He overcame his stammer with intense devotion to breathing exercises and other therapies. He loved the movie The King's Speech.
May 27, 2013
As a TV analyst, he had the gift of simplicity. If a golfer was deep in the woods, Venturi would say, "He's got nothing." He talked the way players talked, and he was relentlessly consistent, never eccentric; comfortable and reliable and always there, one weekend after another. As an interviewer he said his approach was, "Short questions, long answers." His 1983 interview with the utterly reclusive Hogan is an iconic moment deeply embedded in the culture of the game. Venturi was the man who got Hogan to talk. Hogan liked him, and that speaks volumes.
Venturi and his first wife, Conni, divorced in 1970. His two sons from that marriage, Matt and Tim, accepted on their father's behalf when Venturi was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame just 11 days before his death. Venturi's second wife, Beau, died in 1997. He and his third wife, Kathleen, whom he married in 2003, lived in a beautiful house in Rancho Mirage, in the California desert, that was like a golf museum. Part of Venturi's appeal was that he was so connected to his own remarkable history and to the people he knew and loved along the way.
He represents a fading world of silk sport coats, corner tables at Italian restaurants, relationships that existed not on social media but in person. He once gave a visitor a chocolate-brown persimmon driver, a beautiful relic, and when the guest tried to resist this generous gesture, Venturi said, "I'll never hit it again." Ken Venturi's woods were wood, and in his day you figured things out for yourself, and that made all the difference.
He was an American archetype, a working-class kid who made a difficult thing look easy.