Climbing Down from the Tower

Climbing Down from the Tower

There’s comfort in familiarity, someone once said, and if that’s true, we at CBS are in for a period of squirming around on the sofa. After 32 years of continuity in the lead analyst department, it seems we will be forced into finding a replacement for Ken Venturi, who is making noises about hanging up his headset, possibly as early as the end of this season.

He’s been threatening to do it since I showed up (a coincidence I’m sure), but this year, with his commitment as captain of the U.S. President’s Cup team consuming so much of his time, he appears to be serious.

There are a lot of people out there who would like the job, but precious few who actually qualify, and most of those are still involved in the irritating business of trying to persuade the pellet into the pot, so to speak. Like, they’re playing, you know?

It’s hard to persuade a man to quit playing golf at the peak of his powers, and getting harder now that the Senior Tour is making millionaires out of dunderheads like McCord. Kenny, of course, was forced into television by a serious finger injury, but these days, hardly anyone gives their playing partners the finger with anything like the passionate sincerity that he still possesses, so the chances of us getting that lucky again are remote indeed. Given the urgency of our situation, I’m all for going out there and puttin’ the hurt on someone myself.

But on whom? We need to find, in my opinion, someone who has won a major, isn’t afraid of giving an opinion, has the respect of the players, and isn’t worried if some people think he’s a jerk. Curtis Strange is the only other lead analyst who scores in all four categories, and dammit, he’s working for ABC! I’d do the job myself, but I’m only one-for-four.

In my capacity as network nuisance, I have been conducting unauthorized interviews with prospective candidates for a while. I have narrowed it down to a short list of four front-runners: John Elway, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, and a small basset hound named Desmond, which has since been ruled out after it urinated on Nantz’s left leg. With all the electrical equipment on the 18th tower, CBS cannot risk a short circuit that would leave Nantz looking like Don King.

The problem is, Kenny is hard to replace, to say the least. In the few paragraphs that follow I am going to write something of an obituary for him, even though I’m pretty sure he’s not dead yet. It’s just that I’d like him to know how I and many others feel about him while he’s still around. I love him. Of course, you know this means the old goat is going to survive me, don’t you?

Working with Kenny is fun, but the real perks come after the show is over. You never know who is going to show up. Old cops in Chicago, old singers and actors in L.A., old stories everywhere.

I’m 41, and yet when I’m in Kenny’s company, I frequently find myself, like some sleepy little boy, asking him to tell me a story. But instead of the Freddie the Fox and Peter Rabbit stories my dad used to tell me, these tales are in black and white, of baggy trousered men with leather grips and jerky putting strokes, from the days when cigarettes were good for you.

I never tire of hearing about Hogan and Snead, and Mangrum and Sarazen, the drinking and the card games, and the driving across America with one pair of shoes in the trunk of a car that has its only wooden bits on the outside. With tales of gamesmanship on the course, and fair play, too, Kenny can bring you so close to the action, you can smell linseed oil and Gallaher’s Blues, and hear Sinatra crackling on a bad AM radio.

If you get lucky, after a couple of Crown Royals, he might seize you by the knee, and, with sparkling blue eyes and an evil grin, tell you about a round of golf he played with friends in Phoenix back in the 1950s. Kenny has more hair now than he did then.

In a hangover fog, with a couple of swift ones to straighten them up some, they teed off — Kenny, Bob Goldwater, Phil Harris, and Bill Worthing. On the first green a dog runs between Bob’s ball and the hole just before he takes the putter back. Unfazed, he rolls the ball up to the edge of the hole. His playing partners are amazed at his concentration. Kenny watches the dog scamper down the fairway, and turns to Bob and asks, “My God, didn’t you see that dog?”

Bob looks at Kenny and says, “Was that a real dog?”

One of my favorite Kenny stories is of Phil Harris and his first telecast at the old Crosby. He was up in the 18th tower at Pebble Beach, sitting with Kenny and Pat Summerall, whom producer Frank Chirkinian had framed on camera, with Phil off camera to Kenny’s right. Phil was not yet accustomed to the subtleties of working in the booth, as the viewers found out when a hand appeared in the shot, tapping on Kenny’s shoulder, followed by a violently stage-whispered, “Kenny, I’ll be back in a moment, I’ve got to take a leak.”

Mind you, at least Phil had the decency to leave the tower to perform his ablutions, as at least one other announcer who used to work for us occasionally did not.

Kenny was an infantry sergeant who served in Korea, and during the Cold War on the Russian border. He is a loner who chooses his friends carefully and keeps them for life. He is fiercely loyal, and at times, disturbingly honest. It’s safe to say that he does not suffer fools gladly, even though I must say he has been remarkably patient with me.

He is the longest serving lead analyst in any sport, on any network, and when he retires, we are in deep doody. I hope we can have the old silver fox back for The Masters and the PGA Championship, both of which would be unimaginable without him. At Augusta in particular, he continually astounds me by reading every putt correctly. I played The Masters once and been involved with three telecasts, but even I can tell you that this is harder than reading a Russian newspaper in a dark room. I only have the 15th green to worry about, and I’ll get that wrong every now and then…and again.

They say you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. Well, the American golfing public will find out when Kenny goes. I know I will miss him dearly. Like Summerall once said when he was asked by a journalist if he would miss Sundays with Tom Brookshire, “I’ll miss him even more on Saturday nights!”

Once, at the Ameritech Seniors near Chicago, Kenny was sitting in the clubhouse dining room with Tommy Bolt when Billy Casper happened by.

“Hey, Kenny, how come you’re not still out here playing against us?” Casper wanted to know.

“I’m a broadcaster now,” Kenny replied. He is lean and hard, strong as a whip. Casper is not.

“How do you keep yourself in shape, if you don’t play?” Casper yelled back. Kenny stabbed a crooked finger at the spherical superstar, and announced, “I have a picture of you on my refrigerator,” leaving Bolt laughing so hard he fell out of his chair, and leaving Venturi, as always, one up.

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