Sunday, May 19, 2013

Ken Venturi, 1931-2013

Very few athletes have had a career that was more dramatic -- or more frustrating -- than Ken Venturi.  Venturi came very, very close to being one of the greatest golfers of all time.  In 1956, when he was a 24-year-old amateur, he led the Masters after the first round, the second round, and the third round.  With 18 holes to play, he led the tournament by four shots.  With nine holes to go, he could have shot 40 on the back nine and won the title.  Instead, he shot a 42, giving him an 80 for his last round.  He lost the title by one shot to Jack Burke, Jr.  No other amateur has ever come so close to winning the Masters.

A few months later, still an amateur, he finished 8th in the U.S. Open.

At the end of 1956, he turned pro and was an immediate success, winning 10 tournaments from 1957 to 1960.  But he couldn't quite break through in the majors.  In 1958, he was in a very good position to win the Masters, but bogeyed 14, 15, and 16 in the last round to fall back, finishing two shots behind Arnold Palmer.  In 1960, he was the clubhouse leader by one shot over Palmer, who only had two holes left to play.  Palmer birdied both holes to beat Venturi by one shot.  Venturi also had top-10 finishes in the 1957 U.S. Open, the 1959 PGA, and the 1960 PGA.  Still, he was regularly described as a leading player, and it was surely just a matter of time before he added some major titles to his many PGA victories.

But in 1961, minor injuries resulting from an automobile accident affected his swing, and he stopped winning.  For three years, from 1961 to 1963, he did not win a single tournament.  In 1964, however, he suddenly returned to his old form.  After three rounds at the U.S. Open, Venturi was near the top of the leaderboard.  Unfortunately, his body was breaking down.  Back then, the U.S. Open was played over three days, with the players having to play 36 holes on the last day.  The 1964 Open was at Congressional Country Club, near Washington, D.C., and the temperatures were in the 100's.  Venturi was suffering dehydration, and doctors warned him that he might not survive the last round.  Venturi played on anyway.  Stumbling from hole to hole, in a mental fog that made it difficult for him to add up his own score, he played the round of his life -- shooting a 70 to win the U.S. Open by four shots.

Venturi's dramatic victory galvanized the country, and became one of the legendary stories of gold history.  Venturi won two other tournaments in 1964, and finished 5th at the PGA, proving that his win was no fluke.  Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year.  At the age of 33, he should have had at least 10 more good years ahead of him.

In fact, his career was effectively over -- he had developed carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists.  Surgeries eventually reversed the condition, but he never again played at a high level.  It was a heartbreaking conclusion for a golfer who had already suffered so much heartbreak.

Remarkably, however, Venturi was on the verge of a new and even greater career.  In 1967, he began working as a golf commentator for CBS Sports.  He kept it up for 35 years, retiring in June 2002.  For most of this period, CBS really was the Tiffany Network when it came to sports.  CBS's camera work and direction were always first-rate, and CBS had a remarkable ability to develop announcers who were accurate and enthused without being maudlin or intrusive.  These days, we live in a world in which sports fans are alienated and frustrated by the announcers we are forced to endure.  In fact, one of the most popular sports blogs these days is called simply  But for decades, CBS gave us announcers who were not only respected, but loved.  Pat Summerall and John Madden are the two most obvious examples of this phenomenon, but for golf fans, Venturi rivaled even those two legends in popularity.

Venturi's ability to describe the technical challenges facing a golfer were unmatched, but it was his emotional connection to the sport that made him so beloved.  As a player, Venturi always wore a white cap in honor of Ben Hogan.  But unlike Hogan, Venturi wore his heart on his sleeve.  Despite -- or perhaps because of -- all the traumas and disappointments of his golfing career, Venturi had a wondrous sympathy for his fellow players.  He was always very professional in his coverage, but you could tell he was rooting for all the golfers, even the ones like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods who had enjoyed successes that he had been denied.  And Venturi was never better than at the Masters, the one place where he had suffered so much heartache.  He never won a green jacket, but for all of us fans, Venturi's voice became one of the great symbols of Augusta National.

As the years went by, his legend grew, and Ken Venturi achieved a popularity among golf fans that is very difficult to overstate.  He was a hero to all of us who knew how he had suffered, and who admired his ability to reinvent himself and succeed without regretting what might have been.  Only a few weeks ago, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.  And this weekend, we fans are remembering him with joy.

Who would have thought that a life with so much sadness could have had such a happy ending?

Note:  A special video was made to honor Venturi at the Hall of Fame ceremony.  You can see it here.


  1. I don't understand why it took so long for Venturi to get inducted.

  2. Excellent tribute. I knew almost nothing about him, so thanks.