Insights: Sports

Golfing legend and television commentator Ken Venturi reflects on a life on the links
| By Ken Venturi | From 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?

Venturi: My favorite course is Cypress Point. They basically have one set of tees there on most holes, and so the pros play pretty much from the same place as the members. Now, you see some courses being built where the designer says, "Well, I'm really going to challenge the pros." But what about the poor members who have to play the course all year long? If you do set a course up for the pros, amateurs can't play it. So, you could say there are already two standards. On the other hand, amateurs like to play what the pros play.

CA: Given those conflicting realities, are the game's two major governing bodies, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA), doing all they can to keep up with the pace of the changes?

Venturi: That's a difficult question. They're trying to stay up with it, but I think they're getting outrun. There are so many legal actions that can be taken against you. If you're trying to not allow someone to do something, where do you draw the line?

CA: You have probably played every good golf course in the world. What do you think of some of the new courses being built today?

Venturi: In the United States, we play "up" golf. In Ireland, where I've spent a lot of time, they play "down" golf. The old courses over there give you multiple choices. Here, today, you are going over creeks, ponds, walls, bunkers just to get to the green. Over there, you might want to bump and run it, you might want to pitch it, you might want to hit a wedge. The old courses give you the choice so that you can use your imagination. Over here the prevailing concept says, "Here's this hole and you play it the way I tell you to."

CA: You lumped them all together: the creeks, the walls, etc. Would you describe the use of such obstacles as golf courses being tricked up?

Venturi: They call it beautification to make it look pretty because they're selling homes. It's real estate. You go around here and you find some average golf courses that have just got all those difficulties built in, and the average player can't play it because you can't carry it 160 yards over water. But I don't call that tricking it up. You're just taking the imagination away. You're eliminating the improvisation of shots, which I love. If I had to hit the same shot all the time, I wouldn't play. I always enjoyed turning it down, bumping it down, hit the riser, cut it in there, flick it in high, bring it in low -- those are shots I used to love, and you can do that on all the old golf courses that I used to play.

CA: No interview about golf today is complete without the Tiger Woods question. What do you think of Woods, and his impact on the game?

Venturi: He's just phenomenal. I've seen all kinds of players. I've seen them hit some great shots. But he does things that other people can only do sometimes, and he does it a lot of the time. Sometimes, you say it can't be done, and he does it. But not only is he outthinking everybody else, he's outworking them. He's on the practice tee all the time. He improvises. He's creative. And, then, on top of all that, is his length. I would have given anything for that length.

But I've been very fortunate that I have lived in an era that I wouldn't trade for all the money in the world. I knew Bobby Jones, and I was very close to Gene Sarazen. I was taught by Byron Nelson. Ben Hogan took me under his wing. I'm asked all the time to compare those players with Tiger Woods. You can't do that. You can't compare anyone from one era to another because everything has changed. The rules have changed. The equipment has changed. I believe that any player who is a champion would be a champion in any era he lived in because he would get himself to the level that he has to attain to win. Look at Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams or Rocky Marciano. It's hard to compare them to the stars in their sports today. The players today are bigger, stronger and longer. The only comparison you can make is that they were the best in their era.

CA: In other professional sports where the money has gotten so big, many observers have come to feel that the athletes just don't give a damn any more. They're not putting in the extra hours, hitting balls in the stadium, running pass routes, shooting free throws. That hasn't happened in golf. And, now with Tiger on the scene, people are working even harder at improving their game. Is that your impression, too?

Venturi: It's the only sport that I know of where the rewards and penalties are made by yourself. You don't have a team to depend on. You don't have other players. I mean, you have to do it yourself. Hogan said one time, "There're three ways to win: you outwork 'em, you outthink 'em, and then you intimidate 'em." That is what Tiger Woods is doing. He's outworking them, he's outthinking them and he's intimidating them.

There's so much money out there. The players have to work to get to that level, but there's more money out there today for dead last in some tournaments than a good player would win all year when I was playing. I can go back to my first tournament I won. I was on tour for a couple of months -- about six weeks or so -- and I won a couple back to back. I shot 26 under par and first prize was $2,000.

CA: I read where the average purse this year is going to be between three and four million bucks.

Venturi: God bless 'em. I think it's great. But I say no matter how much money they play for, you gotta remember where the game started. I made a speech once to the graduating class of the players that were going on tour. I told them, "Remember when you see some of the older players to thank them, because they are allowing you to play for this money and play the game of golf for a living."

CA: Is Ken Venturi going to be behind the mike at the Masters this year?

Venturi: I'm going to retire. So, it's going to be a very limited scheduling if I do go back. I've signed a contract with CBS for six tournaments, which includes the Masters and the PGA Championship. I was having dinner with DiMaggio one time, and I asked him, "Why did you retire? You had a lot of good years left." He said, "Ken, remember this: when you're good you can always get in. It's knowing when to get out." And that is one great line. And I think it's time. Thirty-two years is a long time. I went longer than I was going to anyway. But after losing my wife, I said I needed something to do. But I've got other things to do. It's not like I'm going to come home and sit in a rocking chair. I've got a lot of things to do.

I just think it's time to move on.