I had the great privilege of spending 90 minutes with Ken Venturi at his California home last week. The 1964 US Open champion — and 35-year golf analyst for CBS Sports — told it like it is about his experiences at the Masters, including his run-ins with Cliff Roberts and the press. And then there were the stories about Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Joe DiMaggio … and other entertainers and sports figures the likes of which we’ll never see again. With such a wealth of material, I’ve divided the conversation into two parts. Part 2 will appear next week.
Golf Conversations: I know that all of your fans want to know how you’re feeling.
Ken Venturi: I’m feeling great. Feeling wonderful. I take no medication and everything is just great.
GC: Good. I’m sure everyone is happy to hear you’re doing well. Your book, Getting Up & Down: My 60 Years in Golf … I don’t think most people are aware of all of the trials and tribulations you’ve been through.
KV: The people that I’ve known very well didn’t realize some of these things because I’ve always been a very private person. Someone would tell something and I would never repeat it. When I used to get things from Ben Hogan … his great line was, “Don’t tell anybody!”
I told him, “I won’t tell anybody!”
But there are things I can tell now because he’s passed away. I think that the friends that I have had accepted me because I didn’t tell … “Guess what we did last night?”
GC: You weren’t a kiss-and-tell sort of guy.
KV: No, no, no.
GC: You were a stand-up guy.
KV: Well, if someone else is gonna tell it, let them tell it. But I won’t do it.
GC: You mentioned that in your book regarding Sinatra.
GC: You said he used to go through the newspapers in the morning and look for people that he could help.
KV: Oh, yeah.
GC: But it had to be anonymous.
KV: Nobody gave like he did. He would give to children in the hospital at Eisenhower. But no one could tell that he did it because he would never do it again. People would check out of the hospital and say, “We don’t have enough money to pay the bill.” And the hospital would say, “There is no bill; it’s been taken care of.”
GC: I’m a huge Sinatra fan. Do you have a favorite Sinatra song?
KV: Oh, I know ‘em all. I listen to ‘em all the time. Being great friends with entertainers … here in the desert, Jerry Vale. Being very close to Bing Crosby, Dean Martin was my partner in the Crosby and we were very close. The friends that I’ve known … Jim Garner, Sean Connery, Bob Newhart. All those guys were just great. Most of them are members at Bel-Air and that’s where we got together.
GC: Who had the best golf game among the celebrities you’ve played with?
KV: Well, Garner was pretty good. Wagner is very good. There were quite a few entertainers that had pretty good games.
GC: Crosby was an amateur champion, wasn’t he?
KV: I think he won the first club championship at Thunderbird. He lived only a block away when I lived in Hillsborough, California. We played golf all the time.
GC: Was he able to keep up with you?
KV: Oh, he could play. He was very good. He was a very good player. We had some good times.
GC: Those were the persimmon wood days, obviously.
KV: Yeah. I get a kick out of that on television when they’ve got the metal club and they say “He’s hitting a 3-wood.” I used to say, “I don’t believe it’s a 3-wood” when I was broadcasting. I’ve been retired from CBS now for 9 years. I was with them for 35 years, hired in ’68. I still am the longest lead analyst in sports television.
But I’d gone through prostate cancer and things and I thought it was time to go. As you know, I just lost my dear friend, Frank Chirkinian, who just passed away.
I just talked to Jimmy Nantz before. His birthday’s today. Mine was two days ago. He just got back from Ireland. We talk all the time. I miss working with him. Nobody’s better than he is.
GC: He is so smooth and can juggle all the facts and move in and out of shots seamlessly. He’s a maestro at it.
KV: I know golf, ok?
KV: And I’ll say, “Well, there’s so-and-so who won the US Open.” And Jimmy will jump in with “Oh, he did that in such-a-such-a year, at that course, and he shot …” No notes! I’m thinking, “Where does he get all this?” He’s got a computer head. He was great. He was great to work with.
GC: You must miss it a little bit.
KV: I miss him. I miss Frank Chirkinian. A lot has changed in television. A lot has changed in golf, equipment wise. The great line of Chirkinian was, “It’s not what you say, it’s what you don’t say. Remember: you’re doing television.”
A lot of these guys who are doing television, you would think they were doing radio. “Well, he’s over the putt … and now he hit the putt … oh, he missed it.”
Excuse me? Am I missing something here?
GC: I love it when they mike the guys on some of the made-for-TV events. The idea is to hear the player and caddie talking to each other. But the announcers still can’t be quiet! They talk over the player-caddie exchange.
KV: I was taught well by Frank Chirkinian. Of course, I had great people to work with like Jack Whitaker. When we used to do the CBS Golf Classic, we’d go back to New York to do the voice over … I would never talk over a shot. If I was asked about the shot … because I’d been there, I’d won … I’d say, “Here’s what he has to be thinking.”
Nine times out of ten I’m right. ‘Cause if he’s not thinking well, he’s not playing well, and he’s not gonna win.
GC: I don’t understand the announcers who have to describe the ball leaving the club face, what it’s doing in the air – “If it’s the right stick, it looks good!” And it’s always short. Why can’t they just be quiet for five seconds? Let us watch the ball without describing its flight.
KV: I remember when Mark O’Meara won the Masters. He came to the 18th hole and he had about a 15-18 footer. He wasn’t over the ball yet and Jimmy Nantz said, “Well, what do you think?”
I said, “Well, Jimmy, he’s probably hit this putt a hundred times. He knows exactly what it does. And if he makes the putt, he’s the Masters champion. And if not, we go into a playoff.”
And then I said, “There’s nothing more to do now than just watch.”
After he made it, I didn’t talk for five minutes. The roars, the hugs … it said it all. What can I say to improve on that picture?
KV: No. Not a thing.
GC: In your book you mentioned that line was something Henry Longhurst said.
KV: Yes, that’s where I took the line from. Quoting from Henry Longhurst: “There’s nothing more to do now than just watch.” He was a man of few words.
GC: Which is one of the things I like about Peter Alliss. He doesn’t do all that “it’s 10 feet left-to-right” stuff. He sticks his little quips in there…
KV: Moves in and moves out. That’s right.
GC: Speaking of Henry Longhurst, I believe he liked to have a little nip or two…
It’s public knowledge that Pat Summerall and Ben Wright are recovering alcoholics. Did anyone see this coming? Was it obvious that they had a drinking problem?
KV: Well, it wasn’t for me to talk about it. It was for the director and producer to do it. I’m not running the show and it’s not for me to say. It was a private thing. That’s why I was accepted by the entertainers. Frank Sinatra and I were bachelors for five years and I never told any stories about what we did, where we went. That’s why we were able to be friends.
GC: But it was obvious they had a problem?
KV: It was obvious. And who am I to tell? They had their own lives to live and I wasn’t going to interfere with them.
GC: But when they were on the air, they were ok?
KV: They did their jobs, oh sure.
GC: Lots of alcoholics are “functioning” and they can do their work.
KV: Oh, yeah.
GC: In your book, you mentioned that Bobby Jones had said to you that if you’d won the Masters he would have made you president…
KV: Made me Chairman.
GC: If that had happened, what things might you have done at Augusta National?
KV: You never re-invent the wheel. You always side with tradition. I think I played in 16 Masters and I televised 32 or 33. Billy Ford, who was a good friend of mine, said he was going to take me to Detroit and make me a vice president at Ford Motor Company.
I would have stayed amateur. There was no money in professional golf then. When I was out winning tournaments, I was making more money running an agency for Eddie Lowery and selling cars. But I wanted to go out and prove that I could play.
The only thing I regret is that I wonder what I could have done if I hadn’t lost the use of my hands. For five years there before that happened, I was favored or co-favored in every tournament I played.
But I never give excuses. And I quote from my father: “Excuses are the crutches for the untalented.” So never give excuses.
GC: If you had been born just a few years later, medical science would have known more about carpal tunnel syndrome…
KV: It’s an in-an-out procedure today.
GC: That’s right.
KV: I can show you the scars from the Mayo Clinic when they did it. Going in there, they cut a piece of the tendon and it grew around the median nerve. Walter Hoyt, in Akron, saved my right hand because I could have lost three fingers. [Mayo Clinic] didn’t do a very good job.
Today it’s so simple. They don’t have to go that deep. I’ve got arthritis in there. I’ve got Dupuytren’s contractures where the fingers go down and you can’t straighten them. But then again, if I had won the Masters as an amateur, there wouldn’t have been an Open, there wouldn’t have been all the tournaments that I won, there wouldn’t have been CBS, there wouldn’t have been a lot of things.
GC: And if there hadn’t been CBS, you wouldn’t be admired by millions of people.
KV: Oh, well, that’s nice of you to say.
GC: It’s the truth.
KV: One of the great lines talking about my peaks and valleys … I was introduced at the Waldorf-Astoria by Jack Whittaker. Talking about my life, he said, “Fate has a way of bending the twig and fashioning a man to his better instincts.” If one thing didn’t happen, another thing couldn’t happen.
I wouldn’t trade my life for anything in the world. The people I’ve known, where I’ve gone. You could give me $100 million but you can’t have the friends you’ve known. The only thing I think about, I wonder what I could have really done if I hadn’t lost the use of my hands.
GC: It must have been frustrating for you because in’64 you make a great comeback and win the Open. You figure, “Ok, here I am, I’m back.”
GC: And the next year you started having the hand problems.
KV: It started in England in November of 1964. My hands were just pure white. I stayed on playing because I wanted to defend my championship.
GC: Let’s talk about you and the press.
KV: I’ve had some issues with the press. They say I “don’t tell it like some other announcers” because I don’t say “it’s a bad, dumb, stupid shot.”
I’d say, “You guys don’t listen. I say the same thing but you don’t listen. I say, ‘That’s not what he was looking for. He’d love to have that shot over.’” And that’s why I had the respect of all the players.
In 2000, I was captain of the President’s Cup. I won by the biggest margin ever in the history of international play. I was invited to go there this year to Australia. I did the television in ’98 when Nicklaus was captain. And I’m going back down to Royal Melbourne as the guest of the PGA Tour.
GC: How nice.
KV: In fact, I just called today and accepted and told them Kathleen and I would like to do down there.
GC: Well, if you need someone to carry your luggage…
… change your SoftSpikes, don’t hesitate to call me!
KV: Speaking about luggage, I said to Frank Sinatra one time, “You’re going all over the place … how the hell do you know where you’re going?”
He said, “I follow my luggage.”
GC: Talking about the President’s Cup, what would you have done if you had been captain in South Africa a few years ago when it was tied and Nicklaus and Player agreed to make the tie official?
KV: I thought it was quite a nice gesture and it was honoring both the teams. I think they did a very good job. How they came up with it was a good decision.
GC: And it happened in the heat of the moment. The sun was setting, they didn’t have time to form a committee and discuss it.
KV: No. When I was captain, I made all the decisions. I had no committees. I had Paul Marchand as my assistant captain. Now they’ve got four assistant captains.
I made all the decisions. Paul, who I think the world of, I took suggestions from him. But I don’t know how they can have four assistants. We had twelve players and I’d have to leave two off. The Ryder Cup – they’ve got to change that – they have twelve and they play eight.
It was tough enough for me to leave two off. How in the hell do you leave four guys off? I think they should use the President’s Cup format.
GC: When you were captain, you didn’t have a staff of sports psychologists with you?
KV: Oh, no!
GC: Nothing like that?
KV: I did all that myself! I felt like I was a good captain. I was offered it again but I turned it down. I had two years of watching these guys almost every week and I knew exactly what I was doing. I knew the players backwards and forwards and they knew it. I had great respect from my players.
GC: Of course.
KV: And being that much older than them. And my background: I’ve known and been taught by Byron and Ben Hogan … and was very close to great players like Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet. I really appreciated the respect I got.
GC: I remember your last telecast … all the guys coming off the green and waving at you.
KV: Everybody that came off the green acknowledged me. They threw kisses, they waved, they bowed, the whole thing. A couple of guys in the press said, “CBS had someone on the 18th tee to tell everyone to acknowledge Ken Venturi.”
GC: Oh, come on! Really? Someone wrote that?
GC: The press said you said some negative things after you lost the ’56 Masters …
KV: My biggest fan was Bobby Jones and he told everybody, “Ken Venturi did not say those things.” When I went back in ’57 I was literally booed. But no excuses because you don’t make excuses. But after they realized what really happened, they became my biggest fans. They were embarrassed that they didn’t understand what really happened.
And this writer, who went AP/UPI across the world, took it right out of context. I said those things, but he didn’t get the whole story.
GC: That’s shameful.
KV: I never talked to him again. I never acknowledged him again. He said to other writers in San Francisco, “I’m gonna do this.”
They said, “You can’t do that.”
He said, “I’m gonna do it. It’s gonna make a lot of news.” And he was disgraced after that.
GC: It’s not making news, it’s reporting news.
KV: Yeah. They write things and then say, “Oh, I thought that’s what you meant” or “I thought that’s what you said” and they write it.
Someone questioned the score in the book, “The Match.” Mark Frost, the author, called me. Someone told him, not to mention his name, that the score wasn’t right. I said to Frost, “What did you do?”
He said, “I suggest you do not call Ken Venturi because he has the score card.”
Needless to say, I never heard from him.
GC: What was your opinion of “The Match”?
KV: I think it’s one of the great golf books. They’re close to making a movie of it.
GC: Oh, really?
KV: They’re really getting close. They’ve been working on it. And Jimmy Nantz is doing some work with it, too. It’s got a chance to be a movie.
GC: As you know, it’s hard to make a golf movie because it’s difficult to find an actor who has a real golf swing…
KV: They can go back to clips and show Hogan’s swing and my swing and roll that into it. It would be difficult but it would be quite a deal if that became a movie.
GC: What if they had you play yourself? Dye your hair, put the white cap on…
Speaking of the cap, in Gardner Dickinson’s book, “Let ‘Er Rip,” he told a story about that white cap Hogan always wore. One day he and Fred Wampler…?
KV: Freddie Wampler, sure.
GC: When Hogan wasn’t looking, they checked out the label inside his cap and saw the hatter’s name: Cavanaugh’s on Park Avenue in NY. They ordered the caps, specifically requesting that they get “Hogan’s price.” They were $25 each which was a lot of money in 1954.
KV: I got my white hats from Flipp-it. They were given to me. In fact, I’m going back to Congressional – they’re doing a trophy room. I gave them a lot of memorabilia from the Open. I gave them the irons I won the Open with. I gave them the trophy. I gave them the four original scorecards that were signed.
I gave them two of the greatest letters I received after I won the Open. One from President Eisenhower and the other one from Bobby Jones. And I also gave them the cap that I won the Open with.
GC: What irons were you playing when you won the Open?
KV: They were ones that I made myself when I was with a little company called Fernquest & Johnson. I built that whole set of irons myself.
KV: Ground them, shafted them, weighted them, gripped them. Did it all myself.
GC: And the driver and fairway woods?
KV: The driver was a MacGregor. The fairway woods were Ben Hogan. My first ten wins, I used Byron Nelson irons. In our day, if you didn’t play MacGregor and a Titleist ball you didn’t play the best.
But I miss looking down at that persimmon driver. I used to love it. And I faced it all myself. I learned all that from a man named Ted Robbins who worked in the back of Harding Park, an old Scotsman. I could do hickory shafts, I ground my own irons, I did everything.
GC: I didn’t know that.
KV: Oh, yeah.
GC: I don’t know how you guys hit balls with those clubs. You look at them, they’re so small and thin.
KV: With the way the greens were, they had blade putters that were the same loft as a 1-iron because they had to get the ball started. They asked Ben Hogan, “Who is the greatest golfer that ever lived?”
He said a champion in his era would be a champion in any era he lived in.
You can’t compare today’s players with Bobby Jones who used hickory shafts. And the golf balls don’t curve like they used to. Think about the rules they used to have: I missed three Ryder Cups because we had to wait five years to get points. Jack Nicklaus was a US Open champion and couldn’t play in the Ryder Cup because he hadn’t been a pro for five years. You turn pro today, you get points tomorrow.
Think about when I won the Open. I got $17,000. The guy last year got $1,600,000. And they complained about the course. For a million-six, I’ll play down Highway 10.
Someone’s gotta win! That’s the way I looked at it. I didn’t care what it was. We played some awful places. People would complain. I never complained. We all had to play the same course.
GC: Speaking of last year’s Open at Pebble Beach … I was at Pebble Beach this year for the AT&T. I did something there that perhaps even you never did. I was up in the MetLife Blimp.
KV: Ooooh! Wow!!! You know, I was always trying to get Jimmy Nantz and I to do a show from the blimp. I would have done it in a minute but we never did. Oh, what a view that is!
GC: I called the PGA Tour and they put me in touch with MetLife. They said, “We recommend that you attend the tournament at Pebble Beach.”
KV: Oh, what a one to go to!
What a pick!
GC: “No, I want to go to the one in Mississippi!”
Of course, Pebble Beach!
KV: Oh, I would have done that in a second. What a place to be!
GC: The pilot took me around Pebble Beach and then we went to see the 16th at Cypress Point. That was my great adventure. I have a video of it. [EDITOR'S NOTE: The video can be seen in the interview with the MetLife pilot, Charlie Smith.]
KV: Oh, have you?
GC: Yes, I’ll email it to your wife. When I was there, for those four days, it was 75 degrees and sunny and no wind. It was picture perfect while I was there. I grew up with that tournament; I miss Bing Crosby, Phil Harris, Jack Lemmon, all those guys.
KV: I was leading the year I won. The rain’s coming down sideways. And Bing says, “I want to call it because I want you to be champion.”
And I said, “Bing, let’s see how far we can go because everybody wants to play. But I appreciate that.” He never forgot that.
To tell you how bad the weather was … I was leading by two shots. I shot 77 and won by 3. I hit a 3-iron to the 7th hole, the wind was so strong.
KV: And when I won the Open, one of the first calls I got was from Bing Crosby.
GC: You said you donated a lot of items to Congressional. Did you also donate the US Open medal?
KV: The gold medal?
KV: No. I’ve got that here. When I pass away, that will go into the archives. There was another Open champion who sold his; I was called to see if I would sell mine. They offered a big number…
GC: It was in your book. I think it was $350,000.
KV: I turned them down. They said, “What about a million?”
What credibility would I have if I sold that? Money wasn’t the only thing. I know they make a lot of money today, but they’ll never see our era again. And I’m not talking golf. I’m talking sports, entertainment, family, handshakes, crime.
When I was growing up, I never had a key to the front door, we never locked it. Hello? Try that one today.
GC: Here’s a story for you: I was born in 1955 in the Bronx. In those days, all the mommies would push the babies in their carriages to the supermarket … and they would leave the babies outside the supermarket while they went inside to shop! Can you imagine that?
KV: If you want to see how things have changed, try that one on today!
GC: If you did that today, you’d be arrested.
KV: True. We never thought about it. We never had the crime.
GC: My dad told me that when it was really hot in the summer, they’d sleep out on the fire escape … or they’d take a blanket and pillow and go sleep in Central Park.
KV: It’s hard to say, but we’ll never see America like that again. My thing is, we give a lot of money around the world. Hey, keep it over here and give it to our disabled veterans. When I went into the service, I was drafted. I had to go. These kids that are getting hurt today, they’re volunteers.
I think we should have kept the draft because we wouldn’t have the crime we have now. They’d learn two years of discipline and America would be different.
GC: I also think if we had a draft, you wouldn’t have any of these wars. Once Senators’ kids and lawyers’ kids had to fight in Afghanistan, you would hear quite an uproar.
KV: That’s true, too. Sure. You’re right there.
GC: A lot of people who enter the service – and I’m not denigrating them – a lot of people can’t find a job…
KV: That’s why they’re in there.
GC: Again, not to question their intentions, but for a lot of them, it’s not this profound love of country and duty and service. It’s a job.
KV: And then when they come out, the number of homeless veterans… we’ve got to take care of our own.
GC: Yes, we do.
KV: I go crazy when I start thinking of where we’re sending all this money to. Take care of our own.
GC: Absolutely. Absolutely.
I had a question for you about Cliff Roberts and Bobby Jones. I interviewed Bobby Jones’s grandson several months ago, Robert T. Jones, IV. He’s a practicing psychologist in Georgia.
GC: I was asking him about Mr. Roberts and he was being very diplomatic. He was saying, “There are certain things I would like to say about Cliff Roberts but I don’t think I should. There were certain things that happened that I’m going to take to my grave. But let me say this: There was no love lost between the Jones family and Cliff Roberts.”
KV: Well he was down on me after he read the article this newspaper guy wrote. Bobby Jones was on my side. Roberts was always very difficult to a lot of people.
GC: Because you worked for CBS you had to, of course, be diplomatic about the situation…
KV: Oh, yeah. They’ve asked me to come back to do the 13th hole and then go to the Butler Cabin to do interviews but the network said, “you know, we have our own crew and stuff” and so I said fine.
GC: I’m sorry, who asked you … the Masters asked you to come back?
KV: Yeah. Three or four years ago, they asked.
GC: But CBS wouldn’t let you come back?
KV: No. They had their crew. If Frank Chirkinian were still alive and working, I’d still be working myself, too. But Cliff Roberts was very tough and some of the decisions he made regarding me is because of what he believed this writer said. Roberts came to me and apologized before he committed suicide.
My wife at that time was in the hospital with cancer. I was playing the par-3 course and I saw him there. He said, “I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me for what I’ve done. It was wrong.”
I said, “Mr. Roberts, you soothed a lot of wounds.” It wasn’t long after that that he did himself in.
GC: It sounds as if he was trying to make amends for some of the mistakes he made. Certainly that Arnold Palmer embedded ball ruling was ridiculous.
KV: You ask anybody in the game, “Can that be done?”
GC: That’s black and white.
KV: It can’t be done. And he [Cliff Roberts] admitted to me why he made that ruling. It was because of what he thought I had said. He admitted it was wrong. And if you ask anybody, it cannot be done.
As I said to Palmer, “If you had chipped it in, would you have played another ball?” You have to declare it…
GC: Before you hit the second shot.
KV: Definitely. That rule’s been there forever. But then again, fate has a way of bending the twig… If that had been different, who knows? The ruling was wrong and everybody thought I was questioning the rule because I wanted to win. I was protecting the field. Fred Hawkins and Doug Ford tied for second.
Everybody thought, “Well, yeah, you wanted to win.” I couldn’t have won, even if they had taken it away [from Palmer]. Fred Hawkins never won a major, never won that much. But there was a chance of a lifetime for him. But I couldn’t have won.
GC: You had stumbled coming down the stretch with a couple of 3-putts.
KV: I made birdie on the 13th hole; that’s where Palmer made the eagle. When they announced they gave him a 3 [for the 12th hole], I lost my composure and I three-putted the 14th hole. They ran out and were yelling they gave him a 3.
GC: Yes, in your book, you said one of the members was running on the fairway?
KV: I told him to get off the fairway. But then again, the people that were yelling were the ones that believed what I was supposed to have said in ’56. That’s why I had so many people booing me.
But my reputation was restored when they realized that Ken Venturi never said those things. And my credibility grew greater and greater from not making excuses and letting my clubs do the talking.
GC: You’re credibility is unimpeachable and unassailable. Most people today remember you more as a broadcaster…
KV: Oh, yeah.
GC: … and really, everybody respects you. We all miss you and would love to see you back in the booth.
KV: I’ll take a page from my good friend, Joe DiMaggio. I used to shag fly balls for him at Seals Stadium. I had a contract with the Yankees when I was 18, signed by Lefty O’Doul. I gave up baseball because I won a trip to Boston; stayed at the Copley Plaza, played at Charles River. I told Lefty when I got back, “I found out they live a lot better at country clubs than they do in dugouts.”
I was in NY doing the voiceover for the CBS Golf Classic. I’m in this restaurant on 52nd Street. I’m sitting at the bar and in comes Joe DiMaggio. He says, “Ken, what are you doing?”
I says, “I’m just gonna have a little dinner.”
He says, “You by yourself?”
I says, “Yeah.”
He says, “Mind if I have dinner with you?”
I says, “Love to, Joe.”
So we’re having dinner and I remember this so well. I said, “Joe, why would you retire so soon? You still had some good years left.”
And he says, “Ken, I’m gonna tell you something and don’t forget it: ‘When you’re good, you can always get in. It’s knowing when to get out.’”
What a line! And when I got out after going through prostate cancer … and Frank Chirkinian wasn’t working there anymore – they let him go, which was a disaster. But I thought, “You know, it’s time to go.”
Part 2 of my conversation with Ken Venturi can be found here.