Ken Venturi Dies at Age 82

PGA Tour professional golfer Ken Venturi died Friday, May 17, 2013, in a hospital in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 82 years old. Ken had been suffering with various health problems in recent years. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame only days earlier, though he could not attend.

Ken Venturi was one the greatest professional golfers during his days on the American PGA Tour. Six feet tall, slender, handsome, and affable, Venturi had one of the best golf swings I have ever seen. Even though he won 14 PGA Tour tournaments over a professional career lasting only 12 years full time, it was cut short due to carpal tunnel syndrome and several surgeries for it. Yet, Ken Venturi was known best to most sports fans as a very good CBS television swing analyst at PGA Tour tournaments for the next 35 years. This is quite astonishing because Ken had to overcome a stuttering problem in his youth. It was still somewhat noticeable in private conversation, but not on the TV airwaves.

Ken Venturi grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. In his early 20s, he sold cars at Ed Lowery’s Lincoln dealership. (Lowery was 10 years old when he caddied for Francis Quimet in 1913 as he became the first American to win the U.S. Open.) Ed Lowery introduced Ken Venturi to one of the all time great professionals and gentlemen of the game of golf—Byron Nelson. For several years thereafter, Byron was Ken’s golf mentor, probably just as much as a strategist as a swing instructor. Byron was an excellent swing instructor for Touring pros, but he also excelled at teaching course management, and I don’t mean what green keepers do.

At 24 years of age, amateur golfer Ken Venturi gained national prominence when he had a four-stroke lead going into the last round of the 1956 Masters Golf Tournament. To this day, no amateur golfer has ever won that illustrious golf tournament even though it was the brainchild of the greatest amateur golfer of all time—Bobby Jones. Venturi ballooned to an 80 that last round and finished fourth. Tour professional Jack Burke, Jr., from Houston, Texas, emerged as the winner. Perhaps unfortunate for Ken, he was paired with the legendary Sam Snead that last round.

Just about everybody liked Sam Snead, with his West Virginia drawl and homespun humor. Ben Hogan’s wife, Valerie, said nobody could make Ben laugh more than Sam Snead could. He was so entertaining in the locker room. But Sam was “old school.” If he didn’t like you, and he was paired with you in a tournament, he might do something to purposely upset your game.

I remember one round at the Doral Open in Miami, Florida, when Tom Weiskopf was paired with Sam Snead. As soon as they finished the round, long-hitting Weiskopf came over to me in exasperation and spilled out his story. He said Sam apparently didn’t like him, or didn’t like Tom outdriving him so far off the tee. So, Sam would stand unusually close to Tom when he was hitting his fairway iron shots, and then Sam would rattle coins in his pocket on Tom’s backswing. Now, we didn’t think Sam did that from nervousness. Later on, when he got over 50 years old, Sam got a twitch in his right thumb which led to his unusual saddle-style putting. But that was later.

Likewise, so the story goes, Sam Snead induced Ken Venturi’s collapse at the 1956 Masters, and Ken was bitter about it from then on. If that is indeed what happened, maybe Snead thought young Venturi had a cocky attitude, or he just didn’t want an amateur to beat all the pros, especially in a major. To some pro golfers, there’s nothing worse than getting beat by an amateur. Maybe Sam thought he was protecting the pro game.

In 1958, Venturi, now a pro, was involved in a controversial rules incident with Arnold Palmer at the Masters. Arnold eventually won for it to become the first of his seven major championship wins. Palmer was leading the tournament by three strokes going into the last round, when he was paired with Venturi. As they reached the tricky little par 3 twelfth hole, Arnie was leading by one stroke over Ken. Arnie then hit his tee shot just over the green and the ball plugged. Arnold thought he was entitled to a free drop, and Ken agreed. But the official assigned to their group ruled that Palmer had to play the ball as it lies. Arnold then made a double bogey five, and it seemed Ken now had the lead by one stroke. But Arnie then announced he would drop another ball near the plugged spot, play it, and ask other officials to rule. He did and made a par three with that ball. Ken then objected, telling Arnold the rules require that he make that announcement to play two balls prior to hitting either, which was correct.

Forty-six years later, Venturi tells his side of this story in his autobiographical book, Getting Up and Down (2004). But Palmer, in his book, Playing by the Rules (2004), claims that before playing the plugged ball he told the official he was going to play two balls and appeal to the rules committee. Palmer then adds that this official would not allow him to do so, but he did it anyway. If the official did say that, he was wrong; the rules did allow for that. It is possible Venturi did not hear this conversation. However, the rule stated that when a player elects to play two balls due to a question about the rules, that player must inform beforehand the player keeping his official scorecard. Since Masters groups are twosomes rather than threesomes, as in most other Tour tournaments, Venturi was keeping Palmer’s official scorecard so that Arnold was obligated to tell Ken in advance.

The outcome was that the Masters rules committee informed Palmer and Venturi after they completed the 15th hole that they had ruled in Palmer’s favor. Thus, Arnold’s three with the second ball was his official score. That gave Arnold the tournament lead at that point. Ken then bogied the next two holes and finished fourth while Arnold won. It has been speculated that the rules committee ruled as it did because it had determined that the rules official probably should have granted Arnold a free drop.

In 1964, Ken Venturi finally had his day in the sun, the hot, hot sun that is. Venturi’s main claim to fame was that he won the U.S. Open that year. It was conducted at the elite, politicians’ playground—Congressional Country Club in Washington, D.C. Even for me, a guy from hot and humid Houston, that territory near the Mason-Dixon Line can get some stuffy, stifling, summer heat. And so it did. Ken Venturi, suffering severely from heat exhaustion due to dehydration, and contrary to a doctor’s advice, finished the grueling 36-hole finals on Saturday in humid, 100 degree temperatures. He won by four strokes, with Tommy Jacobs finishing second. Due to Venturi’s health condition, playing partner Raymond Floyd said it was one of the most heroic things he had ever witnessed. At year’s end, Venturi was selected as the PGA Tour Player of the Year and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

Ken Venturi was what you call “a pure ball striker.” In those days, many of us pros thought Ken’s swing and George Knudson’s swing came closest the golf swing of Ben Hogan. Hogan was by far the greatest striker of the golf ball ever. He attributed the success of his golf swing to the fact that he would swing the club “in plane” so well. Hogan’s book, Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, has a drawing of him addressing the ball with an imaginary sheet of glass extending from the ball up through his neck. Its purpose is to illustrate how Hogan wanted to swing the club head on a plane which assimilated that imaginary sheet of glass.

Venturi’s golf swing merits analysis. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Venturi and Knudson probably came closest to swinging a golf club in the plane as well as Hogan did. Both of them did something else in their swing that was characteristic of Hogan’s swing—they considerably moved their upper body, and thus their head, away from the target on their backswing and toward the target on their forward swing. It resulted in a pronounced weight shift throughout the swing. However, I never saw anyone do this as much as Ben Hogan did. I know this very well because I bought a movie camera my first year on Tour and took movies of Hogan, Venturi, Knudson, and many other Tour pros swinging the club.

It is only possible to swing with that much lateral motion of the body along the target line by taking a wide stance in relationship to the player’s leg length. Lee Trevino did it, and I think that was the best part of his swing. Walter Hagen did too. However, Trevino dipped his upper body, and therefore his head, a lot on his downswing. In contrast, Hogan, Venturi, and Knudson didn’t dip at all. No dipsy doodle with those boys. (Whoops, any pro younger than Ben Hogan had to always call him “Mr. Hogan” or else you might get a Tim Duncan stare from him or worse.) Hogan, Venturi, and Knudson swung the golf club like Fred Astaire gliding across the dance floor. That’s what constantly gave them that square contact with the ball, otherwise known as “hitting it in the sweet spot.” To get an idea of how good Hogan was at hitting the ball in the center of gravity of the clubface so consistently, he was once asked what he thought of when he wanted to hit a low shot into the wind. He answered, “catch it on the second groove.” Who ever heard of that? He meant making contact between ball and iron clubface at the second groove near the bottom of the clubface.

Because of some similarity in their swings, sometimes Venturi was compared to Hogan. Furthermore, Ben Hogan’s signature apparel item was a white ivy cap, and Ken Venturi also wore one most of the time. Hardly any other Tour players wore an ivy cap except Gardner Dickenson, a friend of Ben who tried to copy him in every way possible.

At some point in Venturi’s pro golf career, he abandoned his golfing mentor Byron Nelson without any rift in their relationship, and he started talking to Hogan about the game. I don’t know if Ben actually gave him swing lessons since Hogan was notorious for rejecting such requests no matter who made them. That’s when I started to notice Venturi swinging flatter and faster. Even though Hogan had such a great golf swing, it was the flattest swing I have ever seen to this day. But Hogan sometimes explained that it was because he was five feet, eight inches tall, had long arms, and he was not willing to use shorter clubs for that reason and thereby forfeit distance on his shots. Instead, Ben had his irons set four degrees flat, which is the most I’ve ever heard of for a Touring pro.

Ken Venturi’s move over to Ben Hogan’s corner saddened Byron Nelson. However, I never knew him to make that public. I was one of Byron’s many friends. Even though Nelson’s Tour great pro career was rather short, he gave back to golf in many ways, including giving lessons to pros like me on the Tour. Nelson was also an excellent television swing analyst for decades, as Venturi was. Byron confided with me that it really disheartened him that Ken no longer inquired of him for help about his game or talked about the swing even though, by then, Venturi had really lost his game, which Byron thought he could help restore. The media attributed it entirely to the carpal tunnel syndrome, and do doubt that was a substantial cause. But it was obvious to Byron, me, and no doubt others, that it was also because Ken had sort of lost his swing by going with that shorter, flat, fast swing. That does happen to a few Touring pros as they age, and perhaps Ken’s malady contributed even to that.

Only weeks after Ken Venturi won that 1964 U.S. Open, he won the American Golf Classic at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. I recall that his ball striking was superb in that tournament. I think he won it by several strokes with mediocre putting. Indeed, Ken Venturi was not what I would call a good putter. I often thought that if I had putted for him back then, he would have won a few more tournaments. He had a strange, unique mannerism when he putted. During his forward stroke, and sometimes even before he struck the ball and maybe at address, he would turn his head towards his target rather than turn his face up so that he could see the ball roll, as is commonly done. Tiger Woods doesn’t do either, and that helps a lot to make him such a great putter. He often keeps his head rock steady while finishing his stroke. Thus, he doesn’t look up to see where the ball is rolling until well after most golfers do.

The next tournament Ken played in was the last of the four majors of the year—the PGA Championship. It was held at Oakland Hills in Bloomfield, Michigan, near Detroit. This historic club has hosted 16 major men’s golf championships. Ken and I were paired together that last round. The 17th hole at Oakland Hills is a long par 3 about 220 yards uphill to a hidden green while viewing from the tee. Both Ken and I hit our tee shots with four woods (real wood, mind you), and the balls were on the green. When we arrived there, we saw Ken’s ball about 8 feet from the hole. I told him, “good shot, Ken.” He then divulged to me that that was the longest putt for birdie on that hole that he had had for all four tournament rounds. To say the least, I was pretty surprised. But I knew I could believe him. Ken Venturi was a straight shooter with both club and lip.

After that tournament, Venturi only won one more PGA Tour tournament before the carpal tunnel syndrome forced him to retire. To his much delight, it was the 1966 Lucky International Open at Harding Park municipal course in San Francisco, his former hometown. Moreover, his dad actually ran the pro shop there, and that’s the golf course where young Venturi mostly grew up fashioning his golf skills.

The golf world will miss cordial Ken Venturi, an outstanding color telecaster and a pure ball striker who had one of the best golf swings that ever came down the pike.

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