MASTERS COLUMN: Not many aware of ex-U.S. Open champ, Masters announcer Venturi's longtime battle with adversity

Loran Smith

Loran Smith

AUGUSTA -- Millions of golf fans are familiar with Ken Venturi's name, but few are aware that the former U.S. Open champion and longtime CBS golf analyst has a speech problem. They don't know it because Venturi has made a determined effort to overcome his handicap -- a stuttering problem -- and he is not embarrassed to admit it. That he could take a lead position in a telecast viewed by more than 20 million people without stuttering is one of Venturi's most rewarding accomplishments, perhaps more important than winning the U.S. Open in 1964.

For years, Venturi was a member of the CBS broadcast team, working along side Pat Summerall and subsequently Jim Nance for the Masters. Viewers never heard him stumble a single time during his remarkable television career.

At 13, his mother was told that he had a speech problem that could not be corrected in an era when there was practically no professional therapy for such a problem.

"I couldn't be with my friends and do things the other kids did," Venturi began, "because I was too embarrassed. I didn't even date. How can you get a date with a girl if you can't even ask her out?"

Venturi began literally living on the golf course, which completely changed and redirected his life. He would practice for hours, starting early and stopping only at nightfall. On the practice tee by himself, he not only learned how to correctly hit a golf ball, he talked out loud to himself as he practiced. He'd hit a shot and then describe it as though he were at a press conference. From those long hours of vocal activity, he learned to control his speech. He developed the confidence that he could carry on a conversation without stuttering.

Early in Venturi's career, his handicap was to give him yet another problem. He was thought of as being moody, brash and cocky because he gave quick short answers and moved on. However, attitude did not spawn his abrupt style. He simply couldn't speak off the cuff without revealing his handicap.

"It took me a while before I became comfortable around people," he says. "I still stutter, but I can control it and it doesn't embarrass me anymore. I don't mind talking about it, and I am working with youngsters who stutter, which has been a rewarding experience. I appreciate the opportunity to work with them and try to advise and encourage kids with speech problems."

Now living in Palm Desert, Calif., Venturi still spends long hours on the practice tee -- even after more than 10 years on the professional tour and more than three decades in the CBS broadcast booth.

"I'm really a private person," he adds. "I like backwater fishing, and I like to be by myself. Practicing for three or four hours is something I enjoy very much."

Hardly a day goes by that he doesn't don his shag bag and head for the most distant corner of the practice tee.

He has no bitterness, and adversity has come his way on more than one occasion. It has been more than a half century since Venturi, all set to become the first amateur to win the 1956 Masters, shot a final round 80 in tricky, blustery winds to lose to Jack Burke, Jr., who began the day eight strokes behind. It was a crushing defeat for the then 24-year-old Californian, but it did not ruin his life or his career.

"There's no doubt that changed my career, but I don't think it was damaged. It added something to my character. I think I learned something about myself and life. One development from that experience is that I turned professional. If I had won, I would have remained an amateur," Venturi says.

That April Sunday in 1956 was not a day for golf. The gusting winds made playing conditions miserable, causing Venturi to three-putt six greens. Many veterans, including Julius Boros, Jim Turnesa and Mike Souchak, also scored eight over-par 80s. Burke and Sam Snead were the only two players to break par, each scoring 71s. Burke didn't suffer on the greens as Venturi and most of the others did. The '56 Masters was a tournament in which Burke did not three-putt a single time.

"Looking back, I have no regrets," Venturi, a natural left-hander, adds. "As it turned out, I perhaps have both sides of the coin: I have one of the most memorable defeats in golf -- the Masters -- and one of the most memorable victories -- the U.S. Open."

In searing heat, in the last year that the U.S. Open format called for 36 holes on the final day (at Congressional), Venturi scored 136 and became the second golfer to break 280 in Open play. Following the Open, a circulatory ailment in his hands caused by a compressed nerve forced him into early retirement.

"My career only lasted 10 and one-half years. I would like to know what I could have done if I had never had the hand problem," Venturi said.

The Masters remains a nostalgic event for him.

"That exciting tournament brings back so many memories. The aura, the setting, and the tradition. It is something to behold," he says.

He recalls that he coined the phrase "Augusta begins on the back nine on Sunday."

Venturi has never lamented the few downsides of his career. There are mostly upsides and great inner feelings for a good life brought about by the game of golf.

Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith will be at the Masters all week, filing daily columns from now until the end of the tournament.