For Hall of Fame, Venturi gives back much of what golf has given him

For Hall of Fame, Venturi gives back much of what golf has given him

Ken Venturi's memorabilia includes two framed Sports Illustrated covers. <a href=""><strong> See more of Venturi's collection here.</a></strong>
Nils Nilsen

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — You remember Ken Venturi as the most emotional of men, don't you? It's part of what made his 35 years as a golf broadcaster for CBS Sports such a success, and why his epic win in the heat at the 1964 United States Open has lingered all these years. The game was his life, and vice-versa.

That's at the root of why he's being inducted into the Hall of Fame in May, a week before his 82nd birthday, because the game means so much to him. It's the 14 Tour wins, the one major, the broadcasting career, all that — and what the game means to him.

A guy would get a hairline crack in the hosel of his driver, and Ken's voice from the broadcast booth would get a little shaky. We exaggerate, but only slightly. His most famous quote — "My God, I've won the Open," uttered while nearly keeling over — will live forever.

So it was almost shocking to see Venturi on Tuesday in his spacious house here as he worked with two curators, Brodie Waters and Andy Hunold from the World Golf Hall of Fame. They were packing up some of Venturi's golf memorabilia in a house that's crammed with it, for his display in St. Augustine. Many of the conversations over the course of a six-hour visit went like this:

Hall guy: Can we take this, Ken?
Venturi: Take it.
Hall guy: For the first year, or forever?
Venturi: Whatever you want.

We're talking medals from being the low am here and the low am there. A trophy from winning the 1953 San Francisco City Golf Championship. A Waterford crystal replica of the U.S. Open trophy, a piece so valuable and delicate it was flying from the California desert to northern Florida on the PGA Tour's corporate jet (which was in town on Humana Challenge business anyhow). We're talking about oil portraits of Venturi, time-capsules of golf's most glamorous era, the likes of which will never be painted again. Along the way, the references were to Byron Nelson, Frank Sinatra, Spiro Agnew. A lost world.

"I am emotional," Venturi said, re-establishing what everybody who knows him already knows.

The sounds around him were of packing tape being ripped off a spool; 1340 AM, the Palm Springs oldies station, being piped through the house; the pitter-patter footsteps of his wife, Kathleen, as she went across hard floors in search of photo albums and scorecards and Presidents Cup hats.

"It is hard for me to part with these things. But it's a relief to know it's going someplace where other people are going to enjoy looking at it."

He was finding an answer to an age-old problem, not just for celebrated athletes but for anybody: what do you do with a lifetime of accumulated stuff? For years, not anticipating that he'd ever get into golf's holy of holies, Venturi has been giving golf artifacts away to clubs that are dear to him, most especially Bel-Air in Los Angeles, Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula and Congressional outside Washington. That still left him with hundreds of unique pieces, like an oil painting that ran in SI for a feature about athletes you'd recognize from behind.

The names of various famous clubs — along with Augusta National and Burning Tree and Harding Park — flow out of Venturi's mouth with an ease he never knew in his stuttering youth.

Congressional is where he won his U.S. Open. Cypress Point is where he caddied as a kid, and where he later played in the famous ams vs. pros four-ball match that today is such a part of golf lore that it is simply known as "The Match." Bel-Air is the ultimate celebrity golf hangout in Los Angeles, and Venturi is a celebrity of the old school who dresses and looks the part. On Tuesday he was wearing shiny black shoes, black trousers, a dark blue V-neck sweater and a light blue button-down shirt, and he had every hair in place. When he talks about Sinatra, it's always "Francis." A throw-pillow on a sofa is from Francis, embroidered with the words, "Living well is the best revenge." That's what Venturi has done. He's lived well and large. The men he knew were giants.

At one point, he went off to find a pair of shoes for the Hall guys, alligator-skin Footjoys with cedar shoe trees in them and an extra spike at the bottom. "See how the sole is a little built up here?" Venturi said. "I got that from Hogan." Not the whole sole, mind you, just part of it, for improved balance at the top and to help you hold your finish at the end. "Hogan didn't teach. You picked his brain, picked his brain. You'd see him do something and he'd say, `Don't tell anyone.'"

Slowly, in a trickle, the tricks of Venturi's trades are coming out. What would be the point of hoarding them forever? He's giving back to the game. It makes total sense, as the game is his life, and his life is the game.