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Michael Bamberger
June 09, 1997
Ken Venturi, the 1964 Open champion, has faced life's ups and downs by following his father's commandments
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June 09, 1997

Proud Words

Ken Venturi, the 1964 Open champion, has faced life's ups and downs by following his father's commandments

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The house is quiet. Ken Venturi is in his personal golf museum—his small office in his comfortable home on Marco Island, on Florida's Gulf Coast. On the walls that surround him are his medals, his putter, pictures of him, tributes to him. An alarm on his desk goes off. It is a quarter past eight on a weekday night. A powerful storm is barreling across the island, and the air is humid, and the ground is sodden, outside and in. Even the shag carpet, a late-1970s period piece, in the living room feels a little soggy.

Venturi has been in a reverie. He has been talking about the 1964 U.S. Open, which he won, at Congressional, where the national championship will be played next week. He has been talking about his late father, who sold nets and twine to fishermen in San Francisco and down the coast to Monterey. He has been remembering his father's reaction to his only child's great triumph 33 years ago. The alarm catches the 66-year-old Venturi off guard. His words stop. His fingers find the alarm.

"Luca, it's time for Mrs. Venturi to take her chemo pill," Venturi says, calling out to the Venturis' longtime live-in housekeeper, Luca Paris.

Beau Venturi, 63, has four inoperable brain tumors. They have robbed her of her ability to read and to sustain a conversation. She barely sleeps at night.

When you're really good, son, they'll tell you.

The stories come fast and furious, long into the night, about the tournaments Venturi won and the operations he endured, about his son the banker and his son the chef, about his mother, Ethyl, and his father, Fred, and the things that he said. He cites his father's sayings repeatedly, as if they were his commandments. Venturi sips his lone drink for the night. Scotch on the rocks.

His sensibility is pure 1950s. That's when Venturi first made his mark, as a San Francisco amateur with great hair, excellent teeth, a working-class background and a cultured swing. He discusses the '56 Masters—in which Venturi, then an amateur, led by four going into the final round but shot 80 and finished second by a shot to Jackie Burke—as if it happened last April. When he's talking about the prominent players now in the game—whom he covers as a golf commentator for CBS—his thoughts get scrunched together and names sometimes get jumbled. "Greg Woods," he says at one point. But the names from mid-century and a little beyond flow off his lips effortlessly: Ben Hogan, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Bobby Jones, Toots Shor, Palm Springs, Willie Mays, Las Vegas, Bing Crosby, Dwight Eisenhower, Cliff Roberts, Sam Snead, Joe Dey, the Cypress Point Club, Richard Nixon, Eddie Lowery, the 21 Club, Byron Nelson. Fred Venturi. Always, he circles back to his father. To his father and to his wife.

"My father was a man of few words," says Venturi, whose silver hair, exceedingly bright blue eyes and ruddy complexion are the legacy of his Irish mother. She died in 1973, his father in 1988. "My father and I would drive down from San Francisco," says Venturi. "I would caddie at Cypress, and he would sell to the fishermen, and then he'd come pick me up, six, seven o'clock at night. I'd be sitting on the steps, waiting for him. Sometimes we'd drive all the way home, and he'd barely say a word. In those days I had a terrible stammer, and it was hard for me to get a full sentence out. When my father spoke, it was to say something meaningful. When I won a junior tournament and started telling my father how good I was, he said, "When you're really good, son, they'll tell you."

When you've done the right thing, son, you don't have to explain anything to anybody.

The old stuff eats at him. In the last round of that '56 Masters, a tournament official asked Venturi whom he wanted to play with. The custom in those days was for the third-round leader to play with Byron Nelson. But Nelson tutored Venturi on the swing, and Cliff Roberts and Bobby Jones, the cochairmen of the tournament, felt it would be unfair to the rest of the field to have teacher and pupil paired together. Venturi considered the question of his partner and said, with youthful arrogance, "Well, I've already played with Hogan. Let me see. How about Snead?"

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