Rude: Venturi was 'very fortunate'

Ken Venturi after earning low-amateur honors at the 1956 U.S. Open.

Ken Venturi after earning low-amateur honors at the 1956 U.S. Open.

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Editor's note: This column was written from the 2008 Byron Nelson Championship.

IRVING, TEXAS –– Ken Venturi had a severe stuttering problem as a youth, lost competitive golf to carpal tunnel syndrome in his prime, lost a wife to brain cancer and 17 months ago underwent heart surgery.

Yet he’s inclined to repeat, “I’ve been very fortunate.” You pile up his spewing of passion and you know he’s right, that the life of almost 77 years is charmed and the Lou Gehrig lucky line isn’t a stretch.

Francis Ouimet was his stockbroker. Frank Sinatra was his bachelor running mate five years and, in effect, the best man in his wedding. Byron Nelson taught him for years. Ben Hogan mentored him and in his final days picked him as his No. 1 pallbearer. Gene Sarazen, in his final minutes, chose him to deliver his funeral eulogy. Joe DiMaggio tutored him in baseball. Bing Crosby lived down the street. Bob Hope played golf with him. Tiger Woods played for him at a Presidents Cup.

“Isn’t that something?” Venturi says, smiling. “I know they make a lot of money today, but I lived in an era you’ll never see again.”

On top of all that, he won a U.S. Open while battling heat exhaustion in temperatures over 100, nearly won the Masters as an amateur and was the longest running lead analyst in television sports history, 35 years with CBS. And to think he was a loner as a kid and thought he’d never speak.

“I wonder what I could’ve done if I hadn’t lost the use of my hands at the peak of my career,” Venturi said the other day at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, where he received the second Nelson Prize for exemplifying the namesake’s ideals of giving back. “But I think of all the good things and if I had to choose anybody in the world to be, I’d choose me.”

That’s understandable, given his experiences and associations. The father he felt he could never impress finally told him near death, “I’m really proud of you.” And you can fill a treasure chest with wisdom when partying with Sinatra, practicing with Hogan and learning from Nelson. You can assert that Triple Crown deserves a higher perch on the resume than 14 PGA Tour victories in 1957-66.

Venturi befriended Sinatra and became Nelson’s student in 1952. Two years later he played with Hogan at the Masters and four years later became a regular practice partner. Such elbow rubbing prompts questions.

“You ran with Sinatra? What was (ital) that (end ital) like?”

A smile and pause preceded “Ooh, that’s the family. We would never tell stories.”

Conversely, his stories about Hogan and Nelson could go on forever. He figures he’s the only person who was ultra-close to both. Nelson was a second father, Hogan a quiet companion. Hogan disclosed what (ital) he (end ital) felt in the swing, Nelson advised what (ital) you (end ital) should do.

The better player?

“Hogan was the best course manager who ever played, Sam Snead had the most beautiful swing and Nelson was the purest, straightest striker of the ball,” Venturi answered. “One of the best lessons Byron gave me was, ‘At times you have to make it go right to left and at times left to right, and at times you can’t make up your mind. So then hit it straight.' "

He culled plenty from both. Pearls are priceless.

From Hogan: “He said there are three ways to beat somebody: You outwork ’em, you out-think ’em and then you intimidate ’em. If that doesn’t describe Ben Hogan, nothing does. In his eyes, you have to know when you walk on the tee that you’re better than anyone else and make sure that they know you’re better.”

From Nelson: “Every decision I made as a young man was predicated on whether my father and mother would be proud of me. And every decision I made in golf was, Would Byron Nelson be proud of me? I asked him how I could ever repay him and he said, ‘Be good to the game and give back.’ I live by those words.”

When Venturi teaches golf, his lessons are rooted in Hogan and Nelson, the two legends who came into the world in 1912 and grew up in the same Fort Worth caddie yard. Venturi still has the scorecard from The Match, glorified by a new book by the same name, in which he and fellow amateur Harvie Ward engaged in a 1956 shootout against Hogan-Nelson at Cypress Point. Hogan shot 63, Venturi 65 and Nelson and Ward 67, and they combined for 27 birdies and an eagle. The lone survivor said he proof-read the book three times.

To hear Venturi, Hogan’s so-called secret relates to imagination. “He said when you practice and look at shots, don’t reach for another ball. You watch it and put it in the computer. They once said to Hogan, ‘You have great muscle memory.’ He said, ‘My muscles don’t have memory; I tell them what to do.' "

Not that Hogan did much talking. If he shared secrets with Venturi, he’d say not to tell anyone else.

“We had great words with no words,” Venturi said. “Hogan and I would have rounds where all we did was nod, when one of us hit a good shot. I’ve learned two things get out of sync: A talkative person can play with a quiet person (but not vice-versa) . . . and a fast player can play with a slow player (but not vice-versa).”

For years Hogan and Venturi would practice at Seminole the week before the Masters and then play practice rounds together at Augusta. Venturi would get to know a Hogan not everyone saw.

“He fell into the same category as (Sinatra). If you didn’t like him, you never met him. Hogan was the nicest person you ever wanted to meet. You didn’t go up and say, ‘Hey, Ben!’ But if you went up and said, ‘I hate to bother you, but could I get your autograph, Ben would say, ‘Sit down.’ It was how you approached him.”

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