Longtime golf analyst Ken Venturi died Friday. He was 82.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Longtime golf commentator and 1964 U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi died today, and there's nearly no need to add to the tributes that surely will come, because there's a great deal to be said for a man who not only brought class and dignity to one profession, but two.
Over at Hunting Creek Country Club in Prospect, Ky., a picture still hangs in the clubhouse of Venturi and Bobby Nichols, who played a nationally televised round there to christen the course's new championship layout. The year was 1964, the same year Venturi won the U.S. Open in as gritty a performance as would be seen in that event until Tiger Woods won it with a double stress fracture in his knee in 2008.
Venturi shot a 64 that day at Hunting Creek, a record that still stands from the course's Championship tees.
The picture and the hat Venturi wore during the round still hang at the club.
When the PGA Championship came to Valhalla in 2000, I was still the new guy at The Courier-Journal. I hadn't even really started to work in earnest on my full-time beat, University of Louisville sports. And somehow, we needed to fill some more pages in a 64-page magazine we were producing for the tournament. I was asked to try to track down Venturi, who had been saying for much of the year that he would retire from broadcasting at the end of that season.
I caught up with him, and he laughed with his trademark voice on the other end of the phone when I mentioned the Hunting Creek picture. Even though he was arguably at the top of his game as an announcer, he said he really wanted to wind it down. He said there was something to be said for going out on top. He said he got the notion from having dinner with Joe DiMaggio after his retirement, when he knew DiMaggio had some good years left. He said DiMaggio told him that it's easy to know when to get in, but, "It's knowing when to get out," that was the trick. I mostly sat and listened, because he was talking about having dinner with DiMaggio and I'd just had dinner at the McDonald's on Broadway.
Venturi actually stayed in the booth for two more years after that, retiring in 2002. And he still went out on top.
Nothing came easy to Venturi. His only U.S. Open win came in oppressive heat at Congressional. A doctor urged him to pull out during a break before the final round (the golfers played 36 holes on the final day in those times, but would not do it again after '64). Venturi said he wasn't stopping, so the doctor insisted he walk the round with Venturi.
In '64, the year he won that round at Hunting Creek and the U.S. Open, Sports Illustrated named him its Sportsman of the Year.
But Venturi's career would not last much longer. He was forced to retire with what he called circulation issues in his hands. Today we'd call it carpal tunnel syndrome. CBS quickly offered him a job with the CBS Golf Classic program in 1968. It was quite a step for a man who had grown up with a terrible stuttering problem. Venturi told me his on-the-job training came alongside Jack Whitaker, who would tell him to listen to his voice-overs and remind him, "You have to have your thoughts ahead of what you are saying. You can't think out loud. What you say is what people will hear."
For 35 years, Venturi was a thoughtful voice, even as sports broadcasting changed to put more emphasis on voice than on thought. Think before you speak. It's a good motto, but it is no way to get ahead as a sports announcer these days. Still, the people I've admired most in the profession are those who clearly tried to do just that.
A couple of weeks after the PGA at Valhalla, an envelope arrived in my box at the newspaper. Inside it was a piece of plain white stationary, with some handwriting on it. It's after midnight, hours since his death, and I've spent most of the evening looking for it. I haven't had any luck, but even after a couple of moves and more than a dozen years, I know it's around somewhere. And I don't need to lay hands on it to know what it said.
"Eric, thanks for the nice piece. It's good to be remembered."
And he signed his name. Ken Venturi was as big as you can get in golf broadcasting, but he wasn't too big to send a quick note to say thanks, even if he didn't need to, even if it wasn't Sports Illustrated, but a local guy at a local paper.
"It's good to be remembered," he wrote.
In a sport that inducted him into its World Hall of Fame only three weeks ago, he always will be.