The players know him just as we do. They know Ken Venturi's deep voice, his customary sayings, the triumphant moment of his playing career. He's been announcing golf since 1968,35 years, all with CBS. The players grew up listening to him. On Sunday afternoon, Venturi's final day in the broadcast booth, many of the players paid tribute to him. As they came off the 18th green at the TPC at Avenel, on the outskirts of the nation's capital, they put aside their bogeys and frustration and eagerness to split town, looked up at the CBS tower looming above and waved goodbye.
The first salute came at about half-past three, 30 minutes into the broadcast. Venturi, working beside his surrogate son, Jim Nantz, their backs to the green, didn't notice the gesture. A production assistant tapped Venturi's elbow. The announcer popped out of his chair, leaned out an open window and waved back. He returned to his seat and mouthed the words, "Who was that?"
" Joe Durant," the p.a. whispered, identifying the journeyman pro who caught fire briefly last year.
Venturi is a man who, by his own admission, cries at groundbreakings. When the name Joe Durant reached his ears, he pursed his lips and nodded solemnly, as Walter Cronkite of CBS News did at the great rocket launches and funerals of the 1960s. Outside the culture of golf, nobody would get Venturi. If you ask him about his reading habits, he assumes you want to know how he reads greens. Venturi has lived his life in the sanctuary of the game. "Kenny's golf," Jeff Sluman said in a taped tribute. "That's what he's all about."
Nobody has ever confused Venturi with Johnny Miller, his counterpart at NBC, whose candor sometimes infuriates the players but who is forever teaching the subtleties of the pro game to his duffer audience with a brilliant torrent of words. Venturi is a recovering stammerer. Talking, oddly enough, is not his strong suit. His commentary—little bursts of a dozen or so loosely connected words—has always been rooted in passion. He became an icon by being in our living rooms one weekend after another, by being reliable, predictable and comfortable. He'd like to have that one again.... You couldn't walk it out there any better.... He'll take his par and walk away quietly.... That's class. Of the new Kemper Insurance Open champion, Bob Estes, Venturi said, "You won't find a nicer young man."
Fifteen or so times a year for decades now, Venturi has been identifying the Tour's nicest young men—which is amazing because a guy can easily get on Venturi's wrong side. The players he likes kick the sand off their shoes upon leaving a bunker, mark their balls expertly, remove their caps before shaking hands. "He's the most relentlessly consistent person I've ever met," says David Feherty, who has worked with Venturi for six years. "He either likes you or he doesn't, and the chances are good that he doesn't." Venturi has lasted by telling us only about the players he does. He's lasted, he said last week, by never telling his bosses what to do.
He plans everything. Retiring midseason at an ordinary Tour event with an unspectacular field on a course without much history made all the sense in the world to Venturi, who can close his eyes and see the movie of his life on the dark side of his eyelids. He first came to suburban Washington in 1958, to play golf with the president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. They played at Burning Tree, where Venturi has been a member since 1980 and where he took many of his meals last week. He won his U.S. Open, as every golf junkie knows, at neighboring Congressional, in 1964, playing the final 36 holes in a single day through sweltering heat, reciting in victory the immortal words, "My God, I've won the Open." In 2000 Venturi was the captain of the winning U.S. Presidents Cup team, 25 miles southwest of Congressional and Avenel at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Lake Manassas, Va. "If I hadn't won the Open, I wouldn't have had my career in TV," Venturi said last week. " Washington has been very good to me."
Up close, you see his features the way you cannot on TV: his bright blue eyes, silver hair, ruddy skin, thin waist. Most golf lifers look shopworn at Venturi's age (71), but Kenny, as everyone at CBS calls him, still looks as if he could go 36. His style is anti-chic, and it has served him well. He started wearing Sansabelt trousers in the '60s and has remained loyal to the beltless slacks ever since, right through last weekend, loyalty being one of his strong suits.
He remains loyal to Frank Chirkinian, the legendary and retired CBS producer who first hired him. The so-called ayatollah, who came to Washington to be with Venturi last week, remains loyal to him. For years—through the '70s and '80s and into the '90s—you would see Chirkinian and Venturi and Pat Summerall, all wearing sport coats, holding court at a good hotel bar as another Saturday night on Tour came and went. As rat packs go, they may not have been Sinatra, Martin and Davis, all men Venturi knew, but they had a certain manly flair and they clung to it, even as the rest of the nation began to worship androgyny and shopping malls.
During a break on Sunday's Kemper telecast, Jerry Pate, visiting the booth to pay his respects to his fellow U.S. Open winner, sang a few bars of Bennie and the Jets, the old Elton John hit, in duet with Nantz. Venturi paid no attention. The song is outside his experience. Later, when the telecast closed with the Sinatra anthem My Way, Venturi's eyes welled up. Venturi doesn't know Elton John. Sinatra gave away the bride when Venturi married Beau, who died in 1997, in 1972 and paid for the wedding. What Venturi knows, he knows firsthand.