Ken Venturi, who overcame dehydration to win the 1964 U.S. Open and spent 35 years in the booth for CBS Sports, died Friday afternoon. He was 82.
His son, Matt Venturi, said he died in a hospital in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Venturi had been hospitalized the last two months for a spinal infection, pneumonia, and then an intestinal infection that he could no longer fight.
Venturi died 11 days after he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
He couldn’t make it to the induction. His sons, Matt and Tim, accepted on his behalf after an emotional tribute by Jim Nantz, who worked alongside Venturi at CBS.
“When dad did receive the election into the Hall of Fame, he had a twinkle in his eye, and that twinkle is there every day,” Tim Venturi said that night.
Venturi was all about overcoming the odds.
A prominent amateur who grew up in San Francisco, he captured his only major in the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional, the last year the final round was 36 holes. In oppressive heat, Venturi showed signs of dehydration and a doctor recommended he stop playing because it could be fatal. Venturi pressed on to the finish, closed with a 70 and was heard to say, “My God, I’ve won the U.S. Open.”
He had a severe stuttering problem as a child, yet went on to become one of the familiar voices in golf broadcasting. He began working for CBS in 1968 and lasted 35 years.
“We all knew what a wonderful player Ken Venturi was, and how he fashioned a second successful career as an announcer,” Jack Nicklaus said. “But far more important than how good he was at playing the game or covering it, Ken was my friend. Ken was fortunate in that the game of golf gave him so much, but without question, Ken gave back far more to the game he loved than he ever gained from it. Over the years, Ken developed a circle of friends that is enormous and whose collective heart is heavy today.”
Venturi played on one Ryder Cup team and was U.S. captain in the 2000 Presidents Cup.
“His tremendous accomplishments on the golf course were certainly Hall of Fame worthy on their own, but in Ken one finds a rare example of a golfer whose second career, in television, rivaled the legendary status of his competitive achievements,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said. “His unique perspective and poetic delivery as an announcer enhanced countless memorable moments in golf, making his voice and presence as in indelible as the historic tournaments he covered. Ken will forever be remembered as a consummate gentleman, and he will be truly missed.”
Venturi was born May 15, 1931, in San Francisco, and he developed his game at Harding Park Golf Course. He won the California State Amateur at Pebble Beach in 1951 and 1956, while serving in the Army in Korea between those two amateur titles.
His stammering problem is what led him to golf.
“When I was 13 years old, the teacher told my mother, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs. Venturi, but your son will never be able to speak. He’s an incurable stammerer,’” Venturi said in 2011. “My mother asked me what I planned to do. I said, ‘I’m taking up the loneliest sport I know,’ and picked up a set of hickory shaft across the street from a man and went to Harding Park and played my first round of golf.”
As an amateur, he was the 54-hole leader in the 1956 Masters until closing with an 80, and he was runner-up at Augusta National in 1960 to Arnold Palmer, who birdied the last two holes.
He turned pro and won his first PGA Tour at the St. Paul Open Invitational. Venturi won eight times over the next three years, including the Los Angeles Open and the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, before injuries started to affect his game after nearly winning the 1960 Masters.
He hurt his back in 1961 and badly injured his wrist in a car accident the next year. He missed the U.S. Open three straight years until he narrowly qualified for Congressional. It turned out to be an epic final day for the Californian coping with broiling heat.
Venturi shot 66 in the third round, but was feeling weak during the break before the final round that afternoon. John Everett, a doctor and member at Congressional, checked on him and found a normal pulse but symptoms of dehydration.
“Dr. Everett told me … I was lying next to my locker and he says, ‘I suggest that you don’t go out. It could be fatal,’” Venturi said in 2011 when he returned to Congressional for the U.S. Open. “I looked up at him and I said, ‘Well, it’s better than the way I’ve been living.’ And I got off the floor, and I do not remember walking to the first tee. I don’t remember the front nine until I started coming into it.”
Venturi was so shaken, so weak, when it was over that his final act was to sign the scorecard. He couldn’t even read the numbers. Joe Dey, the executive director of the USGA, looked over his shoulder, checked the scores and told him to sign it.
Sports Illustrated honored him as its “Sportsman of the Year” in 1964.
Venturi won three more times, his last win coming in 1966 at the Lucky International at Harding Park, where it all started.
He eventually developed Carpel Tunnel Syndrome in his hands and was forced to retire. That’s when he moved into the booth as the lead analyst for CBS Sports, and his voice filled living rooms for the next 35 years until he retired in 2002.
“He was a deeply principled man with a dynamic presence. He just exuded class,” Nantz said. “Through his competitive days and unequalled broadcasting career, Kenny became a human bridge connecting everyone from Sarazen, Nelson and Hogan to the greatest players of today’s generation. Kenny faced many adversities in his life and always found a way to win.”
Venturi was elected to the Hall of Fame through the Lifetime Achievement category. Nantz gave an emotional tribute that night, and then called Venturi’s two sons to the stage to hold the trophy because “we need to put the crystal in the hands of the Venturi family.”
“If there is some sense of fairness, it is that Ken was inducted into a Hall of Fame that he very much deserved to be in and, in fact, should have been in for many years,” Nicklaus said. “While I know he was not able to be there in person for his induction, I am certain there was an overwhelming sense of pride and peace that embraced Ken. It was a dream of Ken Venturi’s that became a reality before he sadly left us.”
Venturi is survived his wife of 10 years, Kathleen, and his two sons. Matt Venturi said services were pending.