Ken Venturi Speaks on Golf
Written by: Kuki
Crystal Cruise’s Special Interest Lecturer – Ken Venturi – is a world-famous golf expert we met on Crystal last month.
Ken Venturi played his very first full 18 golf game at Harding Park Club, in San Francisco, at age 13. Harding Park was also the last place he won a PGA tournament. A life come full circle, but in the interim, and in the years to follow, failures, numerous obstacles not of his own doing, which he had to overcome, all leading to more successes. Now, after decades of battling through numerous serious health issues and corrective surgeries, as well as battling through personal problems, Ken Venturi and with “ his Kathleen”, enjoy cruising on Crystal ships.
Mr. Venturi says “If I had to choose someone to live my life, I’d pick me”.
He doesn’t dwell on any of the negatives which impacted his life journey. Instead he speaks of an incredible life, where for 5 years running, he was the favorite, or co-favorite going into every golf tournament he ever played. He speaks of the good fortune he had meeting so many people from all walks of life; of his strongly bonded friendship with Frank Sinatra; of getting to play golf with Presidents, as well as a multitude of Celebrities; of his friendship and many conversations with baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio.
The life he lived is of course what has made Ken Venturi a Legend, both in the game of golf, and in broadcasting, where he worked at CBS Sports and a broadcast golf analyst for 35 years.
Attending Mr. Venturi’s Lecturer onboard the Crystal Symphony was one of the favorite moments of my 14 day cruise on the Symphony. 80 years old now, Mr. Venturi’s recall of so many events in his life in exceptional detail, delivered not in lecture form, but as a conversation, and with inimitable, and genuine warmth. The audience was enraptured in the fascinating accounts of his sometimes unbelievable, sometimes tear jerking, and often times funny, personal recounting of his story.
I was also given the opportunity to interview Ken and Kathleen Venturi. The evening before the interview, I tried diligently to write some question to ask, which might make for an interesting interview. When we sat down the next day, the only thing I really had to say was “Hello”. The seemingly endless stories flowed like a river, and rather than an interview, what we had was an almost 2 hr. conversation amongst friends.
After attending his two presentations on the Crystal Symphony, and then spending much more time than just the initial two hours of conversation with the Venturis, I believe their story is screaming out to be made into a movie; in my opinion sure to be a hit, movie!
I’m certainly not the one to write it, and even in this story, I’m not sure if I’m capable of doing it justice, but I’m going to try and lay out a bit of the story of the Voyage of the Venturis.
As a child Ken Venturi stammered badly. “I was constantly fighting with kids who mimicked me”; “I can’t remember how many times my nose was busted”; “One guy would give me a shove, I’d whack him back. Before I knew it, there were 3 or 4 others on top of me. No contest!”. His parents did take their son to a variety of medical personnel, who all told him the stammering problem would be life-long.
At the age of 13 he took to the game of golf because he thought it would isolate him… and perhaps insulate him. It was Ken’s escape from the bullying he endured daily because of his stutter.
The game of golf actually had much more of an impact on his life than even winning 14 PGA tour events. He used the tempo of the golf swing to work on his stammering. He found keeping the tempo of the swing to match the tempo of his speech, and overcame his stutter, and eventually lead to his career and a television golf analyst.
Ken recalls the very first full 18 hole round of golf he played, he scored 172. By age of 16 he was playing so well he was finishing under par. Mr. Venturi won the San Francisco City Championship in 1950,51, 53 and 56.
After meeting golf legend Byron Nelson in the early 50s, he also became Byron Nelson’s first student.
In that past era golf was as much about the great amateurs playing the game, as it was the professionals; the reason – the money. It was so unlike the game today, where even those golfers not high on the “money list” can easily be set for life. In Ken’s era of golf, the hope was to possibly land a job as the Head Pro at a private club ( Club Professional).
Ken Venturi almost won the Masters in 1956 as an amateur (later when he made the decision to “turn” professional. He finished in the top 10 on the “money list” in the first four years of his professional career, from 1957 to 1960.
After being involved in a seemingly minor car accident in 1961, he didn’t feel right physically : “My back and ribs were killing me. Two long years would pass before I would be 100 percent again”.
He also struggled mentally with his life (his first marriage was crumbling) and his game; it became widely referred to in the golf world as the “The Slump”. “The Slump” lasted until 1964. During that period Ken says “ My swing had vanished along with my confidence. I went from one of the prettiest swings in the game to one of the ugliest“. Amidst all of this turmoil, as well as financial pressures, he began a very close relationship with Jack… Jack Daniels.
Then, a morning after returning to the Tropics bar in San Francisco to pick up his car which he’d left there the night before, he sat down at the bar, the bartender, Dave Marcelli said to him; “Ken, what the hell are you doing?” “You have all the talent in the world and you’ve just been pissing it away.” “I believe in you and I trust you. I want you to play well, and everyone wants you to play well”.
While no doubt many people had told him the same thing, perhaps not as directly, this seemed to sink in. Ken Venturi told Dave; “ I give you my word. I will not have another drink until I win again”. He walked out of the Tropics Bar that day, and to this day, has not been back; nor will he drink Jack Daniels.
By 8:30 A.M. the next morning Ken Venturi was back at the golf course, refreshing his memories of the only instructor he ever had, Byron Nelson, and practicing everyday until lunch, and back at it by 1 P.M, practicing until he was exhausted. Slowly he started to see progress, as he rebuilt his swing. Once again he felt there was a possibility he might once again be able to play on the PGA tour against the best players in the world.
Near the end of the 1963 season Ken Venturi, was back playing in a PGA Tour event (though it actually took some of his PGA colleagues threatening to not play in an event to get him accepted by the tour sponsor… which is another intriguing story).
During the 1964 he managed to play some pretty good golf, and a few decent pay days (which helped bring him back from almost penniless) .But as the 1964 U.S. Open, being played at Congressional, approached he was still unsure if he was going to make the cut, and be eligible to play in the Open. He did make the cut.
The 1964 U.S. Open was the last year the last day of the tournament was a 36 hole (2 round event). Ken Venturi entered the final day of the tournament six shots back, which in golf is a fairly significant amount of strokes to make up against the top players in the world —
The final day of the first 18 holes began in incredibly hot sweltering temperatures and hover around 100 degrees.
There are so many stories within the stories I’ve included here; the details within the details are fascinating, and I’d have to write a book (as Ken Venturi has) to get through it all.
During the opening round of the final day, Ken Venturi shot an incredible 5 under par on the first night holes, but as the heat of the day, and the pressure of playing in the U.S. Open, built, as he stood on the 16th green lining up his putt, his body began to shake. He somehow finished the first 18 holes, and at that point was seen by a doctor. Dr. John Everett, after examining Mr. Venturi, said he was suffering from severe heat prostration, and told him “You can’t go out there. It could be fatal”. Mr. Venturi’s reply; “It’s better than the way I’ve been living”, and he got up off the floor.
Ken Venturi went on to win the 1964 U.S. Open Championship. For the win he earned $17,000. Today the win is worth over $1 Million. By the end of the 1964 golf season Ken had ten top finishes, was 6th on the PGA money list, earning $62,466 for the year.
In the fall of 1964, Venturi had been named PGA Player of the Year, and Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Year. He’d gone from the being as low as he could go, back to being one of the best golfers in the world.
Then in late October 1964 during a World Match Play Event in England he suddenly began to lose the feel of his clubs. He looked down at his hands; his finger tips were white, and blisters were forming, and he could peel the skin right off. “What the hell is going on?” , he thought.
Ken continued to play golf, but whenever he encountered cold, wet conditions, the condition of his hands would reappear. He kept telling himself it would go away. It did not; it only got worse. After playing, and not making the cut at the 1965 Masters, Ken finally went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to try and find answers and treatment.
He was diagnosed with a severe case of Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. Today the surgery for Carpel Tunnel is considered quite a simple surgery. Not so in 1965.
Ken had the surgery, and began to get the feel for his clubs once again, yet when the weather turned cold the condition of his hands would deteriorate. His hands continued to atrophy, though he continued to try and play golf.
In 1968 he was approached by the producer of golf coverage for CBS Sports, asking if he’s consider working as an analyst. Though still not wanting to admit his golf career was at an end, he accepted the idea, and after an audition was hired, and did the analysis for CBS golf several times a year.
In 1970 Mr. Venturi was informed by doctors that during his carpel tunnel surgery a tendon had been cut in his right hand. Though they had tried rest and rehab it was determined he would require surgery, but if this surgery didn’t work, he might loose parts of 3 fingers on his right hand, as they were already gangrenous. The surgery alleviated some of the problems, and saved his fingers.
That is when Ken Venturi became a full time broadcaster for CBS Sports golf coverage. His final coverage of a golf tournament was in 2002. Though he had been offered a new contract by CBS he felt the time was right to retire.
Quite a career! Filled with so many stories I couldn’t possibly include here.
Yet— aside from the multitude of stories about his golf and broadcasting career, there’s also the personal side of his life story, which is equally as fascinating.
I’d mentioned his first wife earlier; after years of a troubled marriage they finally divorced, and he met and married his first true love Beau, who he sadly lost to cancer in 1997.
Late in 2000 Ken Venturi was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. The only people he told at the time were his broadcast partner and friend Jim Nantz, and his son.
He pursued treatment at Loma Linda Proton Treatment Center, about an hour away from Palm Springs, CA.
On Jan 17/ 2001, he was in Palm Springs, having undergone the fourth of 39 treatments planned over a 3 month period. A friend had convinced Ken to come out for dinner that night at a well known restaurant another friend owned.
Yet another friend of the restaurateur was there, helping out as a hostess, until her friend could find a replacement. This is when Ken first saw Kathleen, who had also lost her spouse in 1997. Since 1997 neither had been dating, nor looking for anyone to date. Kathleen knew nothing about golf, or who Ken Venturi was.
He asked for an introduction, and later that night he asked her for a dance. They planned lunch the next day, which led to dinner the next night. The following day they were invited to a friend’s Super Bowl Party.
At the party Kathleen asked Ken what he was doing in town. Thinking only for a moment about telling her a secret only two people knew, he told her he was in town for the treatments for Prostate Cancer, and would be heading to Loma Linda for a treatment the next day.
Kathleen asked if he would like some company for the day. Ken said he would love it, and Kathleen accompanied him to the next day’s treatment, and for each of the next 35 treatments. By the summer of 2001 they had decided by his last broadcast in June 2002 they would live together. In March 2003 they were happily and excitedly, married.
Today they are a beautiful couple, living happily in Rancho Mirage, CA., doing a lot of work supporting their favorite charities, and because Kathleen loves to cruise, she and Ken head out to sea to tell all his stories on Crystal Cruise Line ships.
Together they are a beautiful couple whose love for each other is so blatantly honest. And everyone who met the Venturis onboard were swept away with the warmth, honestly, and generosity of both Kathleen and Ken Venturi.
The stories are endless; listening to them is like listening to a story of an incredible roller-coaster of life running the gamut of emotions one experiences in life.
I haven’t even touched on all the stories Ken tells from the days of his friendship with Frank Sinatra; his playing on the United States team at the Ryder Cup; his Captaining the U.S. team for a President’s Cup; his turning down an invitation to the Whitehouse for his team, because he wanted them to practice; and many, many more.
Ken Venturi is an enchanting and entertaining lecturer. If you ever find yourself on a ship he and Kathleen are sailing, and you note in the Reflections daily that he’s speaking. It’s a definite DON”T MISS event, even if you’ve never golfed and know nothing about golf.
They are also always out and about throughout the cruise, and most approachable. Just say hello, and the stories start to flow.
Until you see them, you can read some of his stories, in his book Getting Up & Down – My 60 Years In Golf.
-note – they may also be contacted to do presentations on land at KANDKV2000@yahoo.com
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