Ken Venturi, Famed CBS Sports Golf Analyst, Dies at 82

Ken Venturi - P 2013
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The legendary amateur player from San Francisco and 1964 U.S. Open champion worked at the network for a record 35 years before he retired in 2002.

Ken Venturi, the principled and plainspoken CBS Sports golf analyst who commented on the game for a broadcast-record 35 years until his retirement in 2002, has died. He was 82.

Venturi died Friday at a hospital in Rancho Mirage, Calif., his son Matt told the San Francisco Chronicle. He recently had developed a series of infections in his back and required surgery.

Venturi was elected into the World Golf Hall of Fame but was unable to attend the May 6 induction ceremony.

During his playing career, Venturi nearly won the 1956 Masters as a 24-year-old amateur (he shot an 80 in the final round and lost by a shot) and went on to capture 14 PGA Tour events, including, most memorably, the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club outside Washington.

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Playing 36 holes on the final day in 100-degree heat and stifling humidity, Venturi somehow put together rounds of 66 and 70 on an extremely tough course to stagger home to victory. “My God, I’ve won the Open,” he said immediately after sinking his final putt.

The San Francisco golf legend retired from playing because of carpal tunnel syndrome and joined CBS as lead golf analyst for the 1968 season. Through the years, he was paired in the tower at the 18th hole with the likes of Vin Scully, Pat Summerall and Jim Nantz.

Venturi formulated his approach to broadcasting by taking advice from the late CBS golf producer Frank Chirkinian. “You’re doing television. It’s not what you say but what you don’t say. I never talked over a shot — I let it play,” he told David Feherty in a 2012 interview at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles.

His 35 years of work makes him the longest-tenured lead analyst in sports broadcasting history. Remarkably, Venturi managed that despite a terrible stammer that hampered him when he was young.

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“A teacher told my mother that I was an incurable stammerer and that I’d never be able to speak,” Venturi once recalled. “My mother asked me what I was going to do, and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to take up the loneliest sport I know of -- I’m going to take up golf.’ ”

After Venturi departed, CBS replaced him with Lanny Wadkins, who lasted five seasons before current No. 1 analyst Nick Faldo was hired.

The blue-collar, blue-eyed Venturi grew up in San Francisco and learned the game at Harding Park, a public course where his dad eventually would run the pro shop. Earlier, Fred Venturi made a living selling nets and twine to fishermen along the Northern California coast.

The younger Venturi declined a draft offer from the New York Yankees, attended San Jose State, served in the Korean War and won the San Francisco City Championship three times and the California state amateur twice before his heartbreaking near-miss at Augusta in 1956. He always said that had he won that Masters, he never would have turned pro.

After his grueling Open victory in 1964, Venturi won twice more that season and was selected as the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. But the next season, he lost the feeling in his hands and won a paltry $295 on tour.

Venturi underwent major surgery on both hands and in 1966 posted his final Tour victory at the Lucky International Open at Harding. In 2000, he captained the winning U.S. Presidents Cup team.

Venturi’s success in golf brought him Hollywood connections. Dean Martin was his amateur playing partner at the Crosby tournament at Pebble Beach each year, and he and Frank Sinatra were great pals. They lived together for a time, and the legendary entertainer gave away the bride in 1972 when Venturi married his second wife, Beau — and paid for the wedding. She died of brain cancer in 1997.

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Venturi also appeared as himself in the 1996 golf film Tin Cup, saying Kevin Costner’s character should lay up with his second shot and not go for the green on a long par-5. “This is for Venturi up in the booth thinking I should lay up,” says Costner’s Roy McAvoy, who then puts his ball in the water 10 straight times before holing his last shot for a septuple-bogey 12.

During Venturi’s final CBS broadcast, the 2002 Kemper Open, played not far from Congressional, golfers coming off the course waved to the silver-haired broadcaster in the 18th tower. Greg Norman, one of Venturi's favorites, tossed him a ball. And CBS sent an emotional Venturi off the air by playing Sinatra’s “My Way.”

“The greatest gift in life is to be remembered,” he told viewers. “Thank you for remembering me. God bless you, and God bless America.”

Watch Venturi and Feherty chat about golf and television on the famed Swinging Bridge at the 10th hole at Bel-Air by clicking here.