COMMENTARY | Ken Venturi's father once said to him, "Son, when you're as good as you are, you can tell everybody. When you're really good, son, they'll tell you."
Mr. Venturi, you were really good. And we'll really miss you.
The 1964 U.S. Open champion and long-time institution in the 18th-hole tower for CBS Sports died on Friday. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame just 12 days ago, unable to attend the ceremony in person because of health complications that had kept him hospitalized for two months.
Venturi was voted in on the Lifetime Achievement ballot, truly indicative of what he gave to the game. There are few people who can say they were standout figures in two different generations of the game for completely different reasons.
Fellow broadcasting legend Jack Whitaker liked to say of Venturi's career, "Fate has a way of bending a twig and fashioning a man to his better instincts."
Were it not for a strange series of coincidences, maybe fate, we all would have been denied the full breadth of Venturi's gifts.
Ken Venturi grew up with a severe stuttering problem. Before he went to high school, Venturi was told it was incurable. It's that problem that drove him to take up the game in the first place, the first step on a path to immortality.
"I said (to his mother) I'm taking up the loneliest sport I know, and picked up a set of hickory shafts across the street from a man and went to Harding Park (a municipal course in San Francisco) and played my first round of golf," he said at the 2011 U.S. Open.
He won a pair of California State Amateur titles, in 1951 and '56, He teamed that year with high-profile amateur Harvie Ward to take on mentor Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson in what's still known simply as "The Match," However, were it not for a pair of extra strokes in Augusta that year, Ken Venturi never would have enjoyed the career he did.
In the 1956 Masters, Venturi nearly won Bobby Jones' invitational as an amateur. He lost by a stroke to Jack Burke Jr. Had he won, Venturi's life would have taken a different path entirely.
"If I had won the Masters as an amateur I wouldn't be a pro today. I would have stayed there and would have been the chairman, as Bobby Jones said," Venturi said at Congressional.
Instead, Venturi turned pro at the end of '56, winning 14 times on the PGA Tour in a career that lasted just a dozen years. The California native won his only major in 1964, surviving -- in every sense of the word -- in triple-digit heat to win the U.S. Open at Congressional. It was the last time the U.S. Open concluded with a 36-hole final day, but Venturi shot 66-70 to beat the field, as well as severe dehydration and heat exhaustion to win the national title. That was the pinnacle of Venturi's pro-golf career; carpal tunnel syndrome forced him to retire in 1967.
His place, for the next 35 years, was in the booth for CBS Sports, anchoring coverage from the 18th tower for so many years. The broadcast booth could not have been in a more ironic setting for his second career, but Venturi was the blueprint for a color commentator: humble but authoritative, insightful but not verbose, respected and respectful.
Even if you didn't like what he had to say, it was awfully hard not to like Ken Venturi the man.
Venturi had been out of the booth for a decade when the U.S. Open returned to Congressional that year. Almost a decade after his last broadcast, a full room gathered to ask him about that special Saturday he won the Open and to reflect on his incredible life.
Perhaps most striking in his comments was that he could not imagine a better place to have captured his signature championship.
"Not rudeness to anybody, but if I had to pick a place to win the U.S. Open Championship, it would be at Congressional in our nation's capital," Venturi said. "It doesn't get any better than that."
The Open was the one he dreamed of winning, the tournament he thought of capturing when he said, "This is for..." while practicing putting. It wasn't The Masters. Maybe those were his better instincts Jack Whitaker so often mentioned.
Ken Venturi overcame a lot in his life to etch his name forever in golf lore. People noticed. Lots of people noticed and appreciated the grit it took and the grace with which he did it. And it's how people will recall him now that he is sadly gone from our midst.
"The greatest reward in life is to be remembered," Venturi said last October when he was voted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, "and I thank [you] for remembering me."
Ryan Ballengee is a Washington, D.C.-based golf writer. His work has appeared on multiple digital outlets, including NBC Sports and Golf Channel. Follow him on Twitter @RyanBallengee.
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