Venturi: Quiet, classy, let golf be star

It says everything about Ken Venturi that, despite not being especially eloquent and suffering from a debilitating stutter in childhood, he rose to become the longest-serving lead analyst in US television sports history.

Venturi, who passed away on Friday two days after his 82nd birthday and 11 days after a belated induction into golf’s Hall of Fame, spent 35 years in the CBS booth because he both understood and accepted the secret of sports on television.

“It’s not what you say, it’s what you don’t say,” was his mantra.

It’s a lesson many of today’s color analysts, in love with telestraters and the sound of their own voices, choose to ignore, to their detriment and their viewers’ chagrin.

Venturi never described what the viewer saw; he spoke plainly, with a comforting and authoritative voice, but always let the pictures tell the story.

When Mark O’Meara was lining up a birdie putt to win the 1998 Masters, Venturi set the scene, speculating that O’Meara had “probably hit this putt a hundred times” before borrowing a line from his broadcast mentor, Henry Longhurst, another man of few words.

“There’s nothing more to do now than just watch,” he said.

O’Meara made the putt, pandemonium ensued and Venturi was a man of his word, not speaking again for what seemed an eternity.

He would joke that stammering taught him to be brief, but he was selling himself short. Venturi accepted that it wasn’t about him; that golf was the star.

Not that there weren’t critics.

To many, the San Francisco-born Italian-American was too vanilla, too willing to toe the party line, too charitable with the players.

In other words, he was the anti-Johnny Miller.

Some of the criticism was warranted. He could be guilty of sugar-coating — but most of it ignored two truths.

The first: Venturi was from another era, one where men wore coats to dinner, did business with handshakes, kept their word and opened car doors for ladies.

He believed in being respectful and showing class, though never to the point of compromising his principles. He never forgave Arnold Palmer for what he felt was improperly playing a second ball after an unfavorable ruling in the 1958 Masters — nor Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts for not penalizing Palmer, who went on to win his first major.

Venturi once said he measured every decision he’d made in life through one simple prism: Would his parents be proud?

The second truth is that Venturi could be critical.

If you listened carefully, he was saying similar things to Miller, only instead of using provocative words like “choke,” there would be an observation that the player in question “would like to take that swing back” or “would rather be anywhere else right now other than in that bunker.”

And perhaps that’s what most distinguished Venturi from others who’ve transitioned from the course to the booth.

He never really stopped feeling more a golfer than a broadcaster.

When he retired from broadcasting in 2002, almost every player in the field at the Kemper Open walked off the 18th green and made a gesture — a thumbs-up or a salute or a wave — toward the commentary booth.

Rest assured that if Miller or Nick Faldo or Brandel Chamblee were retiring, the gestures would mostly require only one finger.

But Venturi benefited, too, from being a bridge to golf’s — and maybe America’s — golden era.

Francis Ouimet was his stockbroker, and he rubbed shoulders with everyone from Ben Hogan (who liked him because he played fast and didn’t talk too much), to Joe DiMaggio (who Lefty O’Doul thought the young Venturi could’ve replaced in center field for the Yankees had he chosen baseball over golf).

He chose golf, he used to say, because it was the most solitary sport for a stutterer who was mercilessly teased. Seven decades later, Venturi cried when he watched The King’s Speech, because it brought back so many painful memories.

Golfers knew, too, that he was the real deal. A ball-striking machine, modeled after Hogan, whose career was cut short. And there was appeal, too, in the fact that Venturi spoke as if his words had been scripted by a Budd Schulberg for a William Holden or a Robert Mitchum.

When a doctor warned that he was risking his life by playing the final round of the 1964 US Open given his state of dehydration, Venturi — who’d been in a long slump and was almost broke — replied: “Doc, it’s better than how I’ve been living.”

Who says that?

Maybe it was all the time he spent with his close friend Frank Sinatra – or, as Venturi called him, Francis.

To borrow from his old sparring partner, Venturi had a few regrets, but too few to mention.

He should’ve won the 1956 Masters as an amateur but blew a four-shot lead in the final round — the weather that day was brutal and Venturi hit 15 greens in regulation but was undone by six three-putts — and might’ve won the green jacket again in ’58 and ’60.

He did, of course, win the Open — one of his 14 PGA Tour victories — but just two years later was out of golf, forced to retire because of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Today, fixing the condition requires a simple outpatient procedure, but back then, Venturi underwent a crude surgery that only worsened the numbness and pain in his hands, forcing him out of the game he loved.

But he understood if that hadn’t happened, he probably would never have found his way into television.

Though he preferred brevity in the booth, Venturi was one of the great storytellers, especially over a steak and a few cocktails.

One story he often recounted happened at the 1983 Masters, when Venturi filled in for his mentor Byron Nelson as an honorary starter.

After hitting the ceremonial tee shots, Venturi, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead decided to play the front nine.

“Much to my surprise, I made four birdies and one bogey and made the turn at 33,” he later told Golf Digest.

“Boy, did I hit it good. My imagination started flying. ‘Gene, I want us to keep playing,’ I said. ‘I can lead this tournament.’

“Sarazen saw the desire in my eyes, and we started walking toward No. 10. Suddenly, Gene stopped.

‘On second thought, to hell with it,’ he said. ‘You can’t lead anything, Venturi. Let’s get some lunch.’ ”

He followed Sarazen back to the clubhouse “like a puppy.”

Just as well, he had a tournament to call.