Ken Venturi passed away Friday at age 82.
Venturi spent 35 years sharing our dens as the lead analyst on CBS golf telecasts. He also spent one interminable day in 1964 winning the US Open, and one morning playing a match for the ages.
But Venturi might be best remembered for his strict adherence to a request made by his mentor and friend, Byron Nelson.
While delivering Nelson’s eulogy in 2006, Venturi said, “I once asked him how I could repay him for all he had done for me. His answer was simple: ‘Be good to the game, and give back.’”
Venturi gave back on every telecast with his vivid insights on the game. Viewers were always treated to a free lesson or several. And that didn’t include his “stroke saver” segments, which were always helpful and occasionally hilarious.
Venturi once demonstrated how to hit a shot off a cart path. Even though you’re entitled to relief from a cart path lie, the relief might offer an obstructed shot. So Venturi went into great detail describing the shot and proper technique.
He then stood over the ball and said, “Now, if you follow these instructions,” then swung, quickly observed the result, and deadpanned, “you’ll skull it over the green.”
But almost always, his shots were right on the mark. To this day, I still try to extricate my ball from the woods with the announcement, “It’s time for the Ken Venturi knock-down four iron.”
Venturi also gave back through his Guiding Eyes Classic, an event in New York that raised more than $6 million to provide guide dogs for the blind.
In a Golf Digest story in 2004, Venturi told how a dog saved its owner, Omar Rivera, by leading him down 71 floors of the World Trade Center’s North Tower on Sept. 11, 2001.
“At the Guiding Eyes gala at Rockefeller Plaza, Omar came forward and told his story,” Venturi recalled. “Toward the end, he said, ‘This dog came from Ken Venturi.’ I cry easily enough as it is, but I cried buckets that day.”
Venturi’s compassion for those with handicaps began right at home. He spent his childhood as a terrible stutterer. He was naturally drawn to golf and its silent solitude. He honed his game by the hour at Harding Park Municipal Golf Course in San Francisco, where his father ran the golf shop. Eventually he became known as one of the top amateurs on the West Coast.
He was at Cypress Point on Jan. 10, 1956, when he played in a round of golf so incredible that it became known simply as The Match. Mark Frost wrote a book about it in 2007, and The Match remains a great read for any golfer. Prior to Bing Crosby’s annual Clambake, a couple of well-heeled California business moguls arranged the game.
It pitted the two best players of the day, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, against the top two amateurs, Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi.
The Match went down to the final putt. Hogan wound up tying his course record (which still stands) with a 63. Venturi shot a 65. Nelson and Ward shot 67s. Between them, they carded 27 birdies and one eagle.
When they sat down in the clubhouse afterward, Nelson said, “That was some kind of fun, wasn’t it?” Hogan added, “Boys, that was as hard as I can ever remember playing. I didn’t want that round to end!”
Venturi’s signature victory came in the ’64 Open at Congressional. He barely staggered through the oppressive heat on the 36-hold final Saturday. Playing partner Raymond Floyd told the A.P.: “He was running on fumes. If you had asked him his name, he could not have told you. It is one of the most heroic things I have ever seen.”
Venturi sank his final putt on the last hole. He told the AP, “I said, ‘My God, I’ve won the Open!’ The applause was deafening. It was like thunder coming out there.”
Venturi wasn’t even able to retrieve his ball from the hole. “I felt this hand on me, and it was Raymond Floyd handing me the ball. I looked at him, and he had tears streaming down his face.”
Venturi couldn’t even remember enough of his round to know if his scorecard was correct. With a pat on his shoulder, USGA official Joe Dey verified that Venturi could sign it.
“With that exhausting, emotional victory, Venturi established a bond with viewers,” Peter McCleery wrote in Golf Digest in 2002. “His strength as an analyst has been the passion and conviction he brought to the booth. He said things with such authority and in such absolute terms that you believed him, or wanted to.”
Ken Venturi took his moment in the sun, and reflected it back on golfers everywhere, many times over. He was ever good to the game.
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist. E-mail him firstname.lastname@example.org.