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Insights: Sports

Golfing legend and television commentator Ken Venturi reflects on a life on the links
Ken Venturi
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

Ken Venturi is one of the living legends in golf. Taught by golf greats Byron Nelson and mentored by Ben Hogan early in his career, Venturi was a fixture on the PGA Tour in the late '50s and early '60s. But a chronic ailment in his hands forced him to retire at the age of 33, with one U.S. Open Championship and 14 tour victories. Since then, his smooth baritone voice has been behind the mike of CBS's golf coverage, including the Masters. Last fall, he captained the U.S. Presidents Cup team, which defeated the International team at Lake Manassas, Virginia, in October. In a short, but wide-ranging conversation with Cigar Aficionado Executive Editor Gordon Mott, Venturi outlined a philosophy that draws directly from a deep and abiding respect for the game of golf.

Cigar Aficionado: The big news in golf, apart from Tiger Woods, has been the introduction of some clubs that have been deemed illegal. Are some of the changes in equipment going to make some of the greatest courses obsolete?

Ken Venturi: One that comes to mind is Augusta, the Masters. When I played there -- my first Masters was 1954 -- I hit a 4-wood into the 13th hole, I hit a 4-wood into 15. That was in my prime. I go back today, I still hit a 4-wood into those greens. But now, some players are hitting as low as 7- or 8-irons. To these long hitters, Augusta is becoming a par 68 because they cannot only reach the greens in two, but with short irons. That's the change I see. The length is making the game I used to know very different.

It's not just the golfing aspect that complicates the issue. For a PGA Tour event now, you've got to have room for 100 tents, plus parking and everything else. Think about another one of the great courses, Merion [outside Philadelphia]. Merion only has one road leading into it. The game has become so commercial that the course can't handle [the stress of hosting a tournament]. It's too bad. Think of that great 1-iron Hogan hit to the 18th at Merion in the U.S. Open. You're not going to see that again. And, there are a lot of courses like that now that won't be seen again because of all those things I mentioned.

CA: Is it the equipment?

Venturi: Well, take the golf ball itself. We basically had one ball back in my day. We felt if you didn't play Titleist, you didn't play the best. The ball would curve more because of the aerodynamics, but you had to learn how to play it. Now you've got balls that are harder so you can't put as much spin on them, or you can fix it so it spins more, or it can go lower or higher. They're allowing players today to do things almost automatically that in other eras they had to learn to do themselves.

CA: What about the players themselves?

Venturi: You can take away the equipment and the balls, but these new players have trainers, dieticians, psychologists. All this is raising the level of play. I'm 6 feet tall, and I was big for my era, but these guys are 6-2, 6-3 or even 6-4. They've got long arms. They've got everything for a great swing.

The jury's still out on whether all these changes are good for the game. No, this isn't sour grapes. I'm just thinking that the game is different than when I was taught to play. I'm a traditionalist. After all, my ideas about the game were given to me by Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. I was taught by the best and, in fact, every decision that I make in the game of golf or have made in golf was predicated on whether Byron and Ben would be proud of my decision. That's not a bad standard to live by.

CA: Your observations raise a question. The way courses are being set up so as to challenge the pros is a far cry from what most amateurs see when they play the same course. Does this mean there should be a different set of standards for pros and amateurs?

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