You can’t navigate through a half century of great moments in golf history without running into Ken Venturi at almost every turn.
From Hogan to Palmer to Nicklaus to Woods, Venturi was there one way or another.
If he wasn’t playing alongside these icons, he was calling the action as a TV analyst, the voice who profoundly shaped more than one generation’s understanding of the game.
That’s why it never felt right walking through the World Golf Hall of Fame without seeing an exhibit for Venturi.
That wrong was finally made right Monday in St. Augustine, Fla.
Venturi will join Fred Couples as the newest members of the World Golf Hall of Fame when the next induction ceremony is staged in May. Venturi, 81, was selected through the lifetime achievement category.
'The greatest reward in life is to be remembered, and I thank the World Golf Hall of Fame for remembering me,' Venturi said in a World Golf Hall of Fame release. 'It's the dream of a lifetime.'
Venturi won 14 PGA Tour events, including the 1964 U.S. Open, his lone major championship.
“The last time I had tears in my eyes was when I won the U.S. Open,” an emotional Venturi said in a conference call after Monday's announcement.
Those who know Venturi know his failure to make it into the Hall of Fame through the regular voting process hugely disappointed him over the years.
While Venturi’s victory total fell short of Hall of Fame achievement in the minds of many voters, his career was too encompassing to be defined solely by numbers.
A giant spirit, resilience and impact were Venturi’s overriding qualifications.
Victory totals don’t measure the size of a man’s spirit, or what a champion has famously overcome. They don’t fully measure impact, either, not for a broadcaster who influenced how we remember so many of the game’s great players and great moments.
Through 50 years of golf, Venturi was a figure on the grandest stages, from his heroic march to the ’64 U.S. Open title in debilitating heat at Congressional Country Club to less heroic roles in epically blowing a chance to win the ’56 Masters as an amateur and in challenging Arnold Palmer’s drop/provisional when Venturi got beat at the ‘58 Masters.
When his playing days were over, Venturi became our narrator, the voice backstage who framed many of the game’s dramas.
How that happened is one of the sport’s most improbable tales.
If what you overcome is ultimately as meaningful as what you achieve, Venturi should have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
The boy who grew up with a severe stuttering problem became CBS’ lead golf analyst for 35 years, his broadcast career spanning three of Nicklaus’ Masters victories, including the Golden Bear’s dramatic win in ’86, and Woods’ breakthrough ’97 victory.
As painful as his stammering was, Venturi believes it drove him to excellence.
Growing up, he would escape on lonely retreats to San Francisco’s Harding Park, where his father ran the pro shop. With no playing partners to worry about, Venturi typically played two balls, exclusively hitting draws with one and fades with another.
His shot making developed so rapidly he attracted the attention of Eddie Lowery, a San Francisco car dealer who also happened to have been Francis Ouimet’s 10-year-old caddie when Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open. Lowery encouraged and nurtured the young Venturi, steering him to Byron Nelson, who taught and mentored him.
Developing formidably, Venturi nearly won the Masters as an amateur in ’56.
Venturi led the first three rounds of that Masters, but stumbled to a final-round 80, allowing Jackie Burke Jr. to come from eight strokes back and beat him by a single shot.
Venturi insisted that Bobby Jones was so enamored with his bid that Jones told him he would have made him chairman of his Augusta National Golf Club if Venturi had won and committed to remaining an amateur.
Later that year, though, Venturi turned pro, and he made an immediate impression. He was touted as the next Hogan.
From 1957 to ‘60, Venturi won 10 times. He looked destined for even greater triumphs, but after sustaining back and rib injuries in a car accident in ’61, he slumped severely. By the end of the ’63 season, Venturi was nearly broke. His swing was wayward and lost, and he later conceded he was drinking too much back then. He swooned so badly he did not even earn an invite to the ’64 Masters and considered buying into a restaurant and leaving the game.
With Lowery’s help, and with so much work on the range he says his fingers blistered, Venturi bounced back in the run up to the ’64 U.S. Open. He found himself and his game, creating one of the most dramatic finishes in major championship history.
Wobbled by heat exhaustion in 100-degree heat at Congressional, Venturi looked like he might not be able to finish. A doctor treated him between rounds in the 36-hole finale. By day’s end, Venturi prevailed, but he was so weary he could not pluck his golf ball out of the last hole. Raymond Floyd, who played alongside, did it for him.
“I saw him fight and scrap to win the most coveted thing in golf,” Floyd once said. “It is one of the most heroic things I have ever seen.”
Venturi would win just once more in his career. A circulatory ailment in his hands forced an early retirement, but that led to his long second career as an analyst for CBS, which wasn’t without its challenges, either. Venturi recovered from prostate cancer later in his broadcast career.
Proud, sensitive and complicated, Venturi has a fighter’s spirit. He showed that again just a few years ago in the release of his autobiography, “Getting up and down: My 60 years in golf.” He created a small tempest reiterating his belief that Palmer beat him in the ’58 Masters after incorrectly playing two balls at the 12th green, one of them a provisional in Palmer’s appeal of an unfavorable ruling over an embedded ball.
“I firmly believe that he did wrong, and he knows he did wrong,” Venturi wrote in the book.
With controversy ensuing the excerpt’s release, Venturi insisted he wasn’t accusing Palmer of cheating. He said that Palmer merely played a second ball incorrectly.
Venturi’s book, of course, explored his rich story well beyond that incident.
Whatever qualities made Venturi a welcome guest in so many homes with TVs over the years, it also made him welcome among the game’s greats.
Venturi wasn’t just a Byron Nelson pupil. He was a close friend. Venturi also became so close to Hogan, he was a pallbearer at Hogan’s funeral. They weren’t even Venturi’s most famous connections, though. Venturi called Frank Sinatra a dear friend and a former roommate.
Running with the Rat Pack isn’t Venturi’s only strong link to pop culture.
Venturi was one of the central figures in Mark Frost’s excellent book, “The Match,” which detailed a famous better-ball showdown between amateurs Venturi and Harvie Ward and pros Nelson and Hogan.
Venturi also appeared as himself in the movie, “Tin Cup.”
When Kevin Costner, as the fictional character Roy McAvoy, decides to go for it in the U.S. Open near the movie’s end, he says: “This is for Venturi up in the booth thinking I should lay up.” In response, McAvoy’s caddie, actor Cheech Marin, says: “Yeah, what does he know? He only won this tournament before you were born.”
Venturi’s fame spread beyond golf with the release of that movie. Now, with Monday’s announcement, his fame is secured in golf’s hallowed halls.