Ken Venturi, 71, signs off at CBS one final time
Has it really been 37 years since Ken Venturi stood on the final green at Congressional Country Club outside the nation’s capital and dropped his putter in sheer exhaustion and jubilation after winning his first and only major, the 1964 U.S. Open?
For most, however, the recollection of Venturi has not been as a professional golfer, but as a golf analyst for CBS, a job from which he stepped down June 2 at the Kemper Insurance Open after 35 years in the tower.
Venturi, 71, decided last year he wanted to end his broadcasting career at the Kemper, situated in a pocket of the country that harbors so many happy memories for him. The TPC at Avenel is just down the road from Congressional, where he had his grandest moment, and Venturi captained the 2000 U.S. Presidents Cup team to victory at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in nearby Manassas, Va.
For so long, golf has been his life. As a child in San Francisco, Venturi played the game not because he was gifted, but because golf allowed him to be alone with his thoughts and offered a safe haven where he could practice speaking. Venturi had a bad stuttering problem as a youth.
“When I was a kid laying in bed looking up at the ceiling, I was teaching myself how to speak,” Venturi said Sunday shortly before his last telecast. “That’s why I took up golf, because it was the loneliest sport I could find, to be by myself, hit golf balls and shag ’em and hit ’em again – trying to teach myself to speak.”
As he hit balls, he talked aloud about his dreams for the future, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I accept this trophy for the United States Open.” In truth, becoming a national champion seemed a lot more realistic than one day becoming a broadcaster.
Venturi won 14 PGA Tour events, including that U.S. Open he had thought of as a child. In the humid, scorching June heat, when 36-hole finals were the norm, Venturi held off Tommy Jacobs to win the title. That triumph was the pinnacle of Venturi’s playing career. Within a few years, Venturi could no longer play because of a loss of feeling in his hands brought about by carpal tunnel syndrome. Frank Chirkinian, then producer of CBS’ golf coverage, stepped in and convinced Venturi to become a color analyst in 1968.
“I was scared to death,” Venturi said of his first broadcast at Warwick Hills in Flint, Mich. “ ‘What should I say?’ (Chirkinian) said, ‘If I have to tell you what to say, you’re in the wrong business. But remember, you’re doing television. . . . Never say the obvious.’”
Venturi heeded those words, and over the years, sat next to some of the game’s best commentators – Pat Summerall, Jack Whitaker, Vin Scully, Chris Schenkel and, for the past 17 years, Jim Nantz, whom Venturi considers a son. Venturi’s favorite part of his work at CBS was providing playing tips for the broadcast. He remembers many victories and defeats in many shapes and sizes, but it was simply the experience that Venturi loved most.
“I’ve had times when I’ve been calling some shots at the Masters or the PGA or Pebble Beach and it’s getting down to the nitty gritty,” Venturi said. “I get some sweaty palms.”
Venturi said his time will be consumed by charity work, designing courses, playing golf with his friends and spending more time in California with his children and grandchildren. Yet as Venturi sat in the booth above the 18th green at the TPC at Avenel, he couldn’t help but ponder what might have been.
“I wonder what I could have done if I had not lost the use of my hands,” he said, “because I was knocked out at the peak of my career.”
A few hours later, the last putt at the Kemper having fallen, he signed off for the final time.
“The greatest reward in life is to be remembered,” Venturi said. “Thank you for remembering me. God bless you.”