Ken Venturi: Voice of golf and former Open champion faced many hazards along the way

The seminal victory of Ken Venturi’s career is one he cannot remember, and he can tell the tales only because they have been told to him. He had battled problems with alcohol — “I’d gone to hell,” he said — so the champagne he sipped the night of that win was his first drink in months. He was a wonderfully talented golfer, yet his pro career ended after a decade because his hands failed him. He grew up with such a pronounced stutter that he chose golf because it was solitary, because he didn’t have to speak, yet for so many people, he is remembered for his voice.

Sunday night, Venturi will stand on the 18th green at Congressional Country Club — right where he dropped his putter in disbelief nearly half a century ago and said aloud, “My God, I’ve won the Open” — and present the winner of the 111th U.S. Open with the silver trophy.

“To come to the 18th hole,” Venturi said late last month, when he visited Bethesda as a guest of Congressional, “I look out there, it just brings out so many memories.”

He is 80 now, and the memories of that 1964 victory at Congressional — the first time the club hosted the Open — seem rote, told again and again at dinner after dinner. “I feel like I’ve walked all 72 holes with him,” said Jim Nantz, Venturi’s broadcast partner for 17 years at CBS and his friend still.

The abridged version is well-known. Down by six strokes going into Saturday, when the final two rounds would be contested, Venturi played fabulously in stifling, 100-degree heat. But as he lined up a short putt on 17 in the morning round, his body began to shake, and he felt faint. He finished bogey-bogey but still shot 66 to climb into contention.

Yet in between rounds, Venturi was so overcome by dehydration and exhaustion that he laid on the floor in the clubhouse. A local doctor, John Everett, advised him that continuing to play could be more than harmful.

“It could be fatal,” Everett told a prone Venturi.

That Venturi indeed got up, and indeed played, is part of golf’s lore. His memories are spotty. His playing partner, 21-year-old Raymond Floyd, had to pull the ball from the cup for him several times. But he shot 70 to beat Tommy Jacobs by four strokes.

“I think it’s just destiny, when you think something is supposed to be,” Floyd said. “Because he literally, from the back nine in the first round, was on fumes. It was incredible, the performance he put forth under those circumstances.”

Faced with hardships

The grainy footage of Venturi’s win will be popular on television this week, when the Open is back at Congressional for just the second time since. But the reasons Venturi got back up and played have slipped away, these 47 years later.

Venturi is remembered, now, as a success. His golf made him the 1964 Sports Illustrated “Sportsman of the Year.” Though carpal tunnel syndrome shortened his career, within five years of his Open victory he had a tryout for CBS that began a 34-year run as the sport’s lead analyst, essentially the voice of golf. To this day, he is still stopped in airports not because people recognize his face, but because of his smooth, low tone that sounds the same ordering a soda as describing a putt, the high-pitched stutter of his youth long since gone.

“It’s an incredible testament to his will and determination to be able to achieve,” Nantz said. “Once he perfected that, on the air, he had a very powerful voice that cut through. His voice, it was so recognizable.”

Would anyone have ever recognized it had he not looked up at Everett, considered his analysis that playing the afternoon round at the Open could be “fatal,” and gotten up? Venturi’s response to Everett: “It’s better than the way I been living.”

An exceptional amateur player from San Francisco — indeed, the likely winner at the 1956 Masters before he shot a final-round 80 — Venturi established himself as an elite pro in the late ’50s. He won 10 times on the PGA Tour from 1957 to ’60, and was rolling.

But a car accident in 1961, in which he suffered injuries to his back and ribs, began a monstrous slump. Venturi’s marriage, the first of three, was falling apart as well. He failed to even qualify for the U.S. Open in 1961, ’62 and ’63. In the spring of ’64, he wasn’t invited to the Masters.

Venturi rarely addressed the reasons for his struggles publicly — “My father always said excuses are the crutches for the untalented,” Venturi said — and his downfall therefore seemed largely inexplicable. His drinking, though, increased, and in September 1963, he was nearly broke. If his play didn’t improve, he would have to return his old job selling cars. One day, he arrived at Tropics, a bar on Geary Street. His car was already there from the night before, another night that escaped his memory. He ordered a Jack Daniels on the rocks. The owner, Dave Marcelli, gave him an order instead.

“I believe in you and I trust you,” Marcelli said. “I want you to play well, and everybody wants you to play well.”

Venturi’s response: “Pour me a double.” The drink sat on the bar for more than an hour. Venturi considered his current, crumbling station in life. Eventually, he leaned over the bar and dropped the drink in the trash.

“I give you my word,” Venturi told Marcelli before he left. “I won’t have another drink until I win again.”

One invite opened door

Venturi headed out on tour the following January dry, he said. But his game was nowhere. Down to his last pennies, he missed the cut by a shot at a tournament in Indianapolis, and therefore failed to gain entry into the following week’s tournament in Westchester, N.Y. There were two paths: Bill Jennings, the owner of the New York Rangers and the tournament director in Westchester, could grant Venturi a sponsor’s exemption, he could play well, earn some money, and stay on tour. Or he could go home, finished for good.

“I was broke,” Venturi said. “I couldn’t go on. I couldn’t afford to come up there and try to qualify and get back home.”

Not knowing whether Jennings would come through, Venturi headed to the Indianapolis 500 to watch a friend, fellow Californian Johnny Boyd, race. After Boyd finished fifth, he looked to Venturi with one question: Had he gotten the exemption? Venturi called Jennings again.

“He then said the five words that changed my life,” Venturi wrote in his autobiography, “Getting Up and Down.” “ ‘Yes, you’ve got the invite.’ ”

From there, Venturi somehow found his game. He tied for third in Westchester, won $6,250, and sobbed afterward. He went on to the next tournament in Grand Blanc, Mich., and finished sixth, banking another $2,344. And immediately after that, he went to Detroit, for a 36-hole sectional qualifier for the U.S. Open — and made the field for Congressional.

“It changed my life,” he said.

‘A humility with Kenny’

Venturi does, still, have elements of his past that eat at him. In his autobiography, he brought up an incident at the 1958 Masters in which he believes Arnold Palmer improperly played a second ball on the 12th hole after Palmer felt his first was embedded. Venturi’s issue: Palmer declared he would play a provisional only after he had made double bogey with his first ball. Clifford Roberts, the powerful Masters chairman, ruled in Palmer’s favor — allowing the par he made with the second ball. Palmer won, beating Venturi by two shots.

“Can you do that?” Venturi says, even now. “No, you can’t. I’ve never met one person who said you can do that.”

He is not fond of today’s golf analysts. “I just think they talk over the shots,” he said. And there is the carpal tunnel syndrome that occasionally caused his hands to turn white, that cut short a promising career.

“I don’t know how you project what might have happened,” said Verne Lundquist, another longtime broadcast partner at CBS. “But he could have been among the best golfers ever. He was on that path, and he was robbed of a career.”

After 1964, Venturi won just one more tournament. He missed the cut at the ’65 Open, and never again contended in the event that defined his career. Yet the entire journey informed how Venturi acted as a broadcaster.

“There was a humility with Kenny on the air,” Nantz said. “Sometimes I think analysts in all sports get too bogged down in X’s and O’s and don’t touch on the human side of it, the heart. Kenny was great technically, but he could also identify with the subjects. What makes them real? Why do I want to root for this guy? Kenny had the innate ability to identify with what someone was dealing with emotionally.”

Back at Congressional late last month, Venturi sat in a large chair in a dimly lit library. The club had invited him back for a reception one night, a dinner the next, and he was grateful. “Overwhelmed,” he said. The USGA is bringing him back for the week of the Open, and they have worked him into the trophy presentation. How did he end up in this position, a former stutterer with a career as a broadcaster, a nearly broke, struggling pro who became the U.S. Open champion and, two generations later, the tournament’s de facto ambassador?

“I have no idea,” Venturi said. “But if you told me you could give me $100 million tomorrow, but we’ve got to take your name out of the record books, and you can’t know the friends you’ve met. Keep your $100 million. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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