Ken Venturi, winner of the 1964 U.S. Open and the voice of golf for CBS Sports for 35 years, died Friday afternoon.
Venturi’s son, Matt, broke the news of the death to the San Francisco Chronicle, Venturi’s hometown newspaper.
Venturi, who turned 82 on Wednesday, had been hospitalized for several months in Southern California. His son said he had developed an infection and pneumonia. Venturi had been unable to travel across country to attend his induction ceremony into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., on May 6.
Venturi’s U.S. Open victory at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., has long been celebrated for the odds he overcame. On a day when temperatures soared above 100, Venturi survived a 36-hole pressure-cooker and limped home as the champion of the tournament he dreamed of winning all his life.
Venturi led one of golf’s most fascinating lives: tutored by Byron Nelson, a regular golf companion of Ben Hogan, pals with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and the man whom Gene Sarazen asked to deliver his eulogy.
Born in San Francisco on May 15, 1931, Venturi learned the game at Harding Park, where his father worked in the pro shop. Venturi became an amateur sensation with a swing to die for and an ego to match his talent. When he bragged of winning a junior tournament, his father shot back, “When you’re as good as you are, you can tell everybody. When you’re really good, son, they’ll tell you.”
Labeled the next “Can’t-Miss Kid,” Venturi suffered three heartbreaking losses at the Masters, in 1956, ’58 and ’60. Then, injuries sustained in a car accident in 1961 started a three-year slide, which had him on the brink of giving up. Venturi might have quit, if not for his father’s tough love: “Son, that’s the easiest thing in the world to do. Anybody can give up. It takes no talent.”
When Venturi’s final putt fell at Congressional, he dropped his putter, raised his arms, removed his trademark white linen cap, and said, “My God, I’ve won the U.S. Open.”
It was his finest hour as a golfer.
"If I could choose to be anyone in the world, I’d choose to be me," he said in an interview in 2012. "I’ve been very fortunate. The only thing I think about is, I wonder what I could’ve done if I hadn’t lost the use of my hands."
Venturi won 14 times, but his playing career was cut short when he was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists. A year after winning the Open in ’64, Venturi had an operation on his left hand. In his final trip to the winner’s circle, in 1966, he won on the same golf course, Harding Park, where he had learned the game. In 1970, he had surgery on his right hand. The surgery was risky, he explained to his father. “The doctor told me I may lose three fingers,” Venturi said. “My father said to me, ‘It doesn’t make any difference if you ever play golf again.’ ”
Venturi asked, “How can you say that?”
“Because you were the best I ever saw,” father told son.
At last, Venturi had received the parental approval he so deeply desired.
After the surgery, Venturi asked the doctor if he would ever be able to play golf again.
"Yes, but never to your standard," he said.
Even in retirement, Venturi continued to make an impact on the game. He overcame a childhood stammer to broadcast the game for 35 years as a television commentator and analyst for CBS Sports. To a younger generation, Venturi is better remembered as the CBS analyst who sympathized with Greg Norman’s collapse at the 1996 Masters and delivered an endless array of “Strokesaver” lessons.
"He became the voice of golf in America’s living room," said his broadcast partner, Jim Nantz.
Venturi also served as the captain of the 2000 U.S. Presidents Cup team, and could hardly restrain his joy when he was finally selected for the World Golf Hall of Fame, in the veterans category.
"Jack Whitaker was introducing me once at the Waldorf Astoria," Venturi said. "And he said the most beautiful thing: Fate has a way of bending a twig and fashioning a man to his better instincts. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything in the world. I know they make a lot today, but I’d never trade my era."