A Letter to My Mentor: Jim Nantz pays tribute to Ken Venturi

Jim Nantz, Ken Venturi
Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated
Nantz and Venturi spent 18 years together as the lead announcing pair for CBS golf, and the old pro taught the young gun a thing or two.

Saturday night, Heritage week

Dear Kenny,

I'm in a rental house here at Hilton Head with my bride. What a day. Today's broadcast was a tough one, closing as we did with our tribute to the life and times of one George Allen Summerall. When it was over I felt such relief. Between Pat's death and the past month that you spent in the hospital, here on the eve of your Hall of Fame induction, I have felt a strong urge to write you. I've been looking at all of these pictures, of you and Pat together, and it has triggered so many emotions. Time is hurtling by. Can you believe it's been 11 years since we were last here?

Pat's death was a powerful reminder to me to say the things we are feeling to the people most important to us while we can. You have always been so good about that, and I'm going to follow your lead.

What an honor it was for me, Ken, when you asked me to introduce you at your induction. We all know it should have happened years ago. After all, who has had a career like yours? Playing golf at its highest level, teaching, captaining the Presidents Cup team, all your charitable work—plus your 35-year career at CBS. Everybody in golf wishes your health were good enough right now to make that long trip from Rancho Mirage to St. Augustine for the induction. I will accept on your behalf and hand off the hardware to Matt and Tim. Your sons will be beaming, and we all know, with Kathleen at your side, you'll have this infection thing licked in no time and you'll attend next year's ceremony and have your time on the stage. What a night that will be.

I'm trying to decompress from the Masters, but it's not easy. It's funny, some of the things that cross my mind. I found myself thinking this year about the ease with which you made that climb up the steep ladder to our broadcast booth behind the 18th green, even when you were in your 70s. Everyone could see you were an athlete, and how excited you were to be there.

Working with Nick Faldo these past seven years has been a total pleasure, just as it was to work with Lanny Wadkins before him. Lanny is an analyst cut from the Venturi mold. Sir Nick has his own way of doing things, with his ream of stats and his smartphone at his fingertips. And then there was you, Kenny, with your yardage book and your pin sheet. You never stopped being a player.

On Wednesday afternoon, during the par-3 tournament at Augusta, I walked the big course, as you and I did so many times, in the calm before the storm. Paul Marchand was at the tournament this year, helping Freddie rediscover his rhythm, and I thought about the time that you and Paul and I made the Wednesday walk together, when you asked Paul to be your assistant captain on the 2000 Presidents Cup team. We practically had to pick him up off the ground! Paul will be at St. Augustine, I'm sure, for you and for Fred.

Fred. Could two people be more different than you and Fred Couples? You are as intense as he is mellow. And yet you've both been such dear friends to me. How amazing that you are both going into the Hall this year, and that I will be introducing him too. He and I started together in a dorm room at Houston. And now he's part of golf immortality.

That line he had at Augusta last week — that if he won another green jacket at age 53, he'd quit — was pure Fred. It brought to mind your famous run at the '56 Masters, when you were leading through 54 holes as an amateur. Had you won that year you probably never would have turned pro. You would have stayed an amateur for life, just like your stockbroker, Francis Ouimet. Maybe you would have picked up the mantle from Bobby Jones himself and stayed at Augusta forever.

But as you like to say, quoting our great friend Jack Whitaker, "Fate has a way of bending a twig and fashioning a man to his better instincts." How true. Had you won at Augusta in '56, would you have won a U.S. Open? Would you have the record for the longest-tenured lead analyst in sports broadcasting history? We might still have met up in Butler Cabin, but you would have been representing the club and I would have been there for CBS. Still, it worked out beautifully, didn't it?

Preparing for your induction, I was overwhelmed while considering the staggering amount of work you have done for others. For the blind. For people who have had stuttering problems like your own. For battered mothers and sick children. For black golfers like Charlie Sifford who couldn't get in tournament clubhouses way back when. For struggling players looking for help with their swings. For wet-eared TV broadcasters.

I will never forget what you said to me after my first Masters, in 1986, the year the Golden Bear won at age 46. (What a way to start. Big Jack! A hero to me then, and even more so now.) When that amazing tournament was over, you and I headed back to the CBS compound together. I had grown up listening to you and Pat broadcast golf on TV, and here we were. You said, "Son, how old are you?"

I said, "I'm 26, Mr. Venturi."

And you said, "Well, let me tell you something. You're going to become the first commentator to work 50 Masters tournaments. But you're never going to see a better tournament than this one."

You defined my career for me that day, in your inimitable, to-the-point way. And that, God-willing, Augusta-willing, CBS-willing, is exactly what I hope to do, keep working until I'm 75, at the 2035 Masters. Fifty Masters.

But what would you think about me coming back for one more Masters, in 2036? Why? Because Mr. Jack Whitaker himself once figured out for me that the 2036 tournament will represent the 100th playing of the tournament. That would be some way to go out, wouldn't it? And if I'm lucky enough to be there that day, the spirit of Ken Venturi will be beside me.

I got to the course early on Thursday of the Masters, to watch Jack and Arnold and Gary hit those ceremonial drives, and I thought about the time you filled in for Byron Nelson in 1983 and hit one of the opening shots. You nutted one off the tee, and you and Mr. Sarazen kept on going. I recall you shot 33 on that first nine, and I'm sure you wished for all the world that you could have kept going.

Seeing Arnold at Augusta brought to mind our moving Traditions Dinner at Bel-Air in 2007, when we honored Arnold and you spoke. That was a savvy audience, and I'm sure they knew that you had never made peace over the 1958 Masters, when Arnold won. I know that gnawed at you for decades. But on that night, you reminded people that Arnold Palmer made professional golf what it is today, and you gave Arnold a hug. That meant the world to me. I love you both. I feel there was closure that night, and I'm proud that I was able to bring you two together. That's how my father raised me, to bring people together. It pleases me to know you and Arnold will share space at the Hall of Fame forever.

I thought of you, of course, on Masters Saturday, when everybody was debating the best way to handle the mix-up over Tiger's second-round drop on 15. I know you would have been in the camp that said he should withdraw from the tournament, for the sake of golf. How many times did I hear you say, "No one person is bigger than the game?"

Your standards — the things you said and did and believed — have truly shaped me. You and the old CBS gang wouldn't think of going out for dinner without a sport coat, and I wouldn't either, even in this age of casual Saturday night. The good wine, the crisp note for the valet attendant, the unrushed nights. I won't let that way of life vanish. Frank Chirkinian would not be happy if it did, and we both know what life was like when Frank was not happy!

Who could possibly forget your final broadcast? Kemper 2002, at TPC Avenel, in the shadows of your beloved Congressional and Burning Tree. You went out with My Way by Frank Sinatra filling the airwaves. You did it your way, Kenny. There will never be another one like you. Thank you for the ride. You have left a stamp not just on my career, Kenny, but on my soul.

Congratulations, Hall of Famer.

With deepest admiration,

Jimmy
Marsh Drive
Hilton Head Island, S.C.
April 20, 2013

 

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