excepted from the book Invite Yourself to the Party available at InviteYourselfToTheParty.com
There was a great deal at stake for me, professionally, during one of my visits to Augusta National Golf Club for The Masters Tournament. Ken Venturi, the 1964 U.S. Open champion, had, since his the end of his competitive playing career in the late 1960’s, been the main color analyst for golf telecasts on CBS Sports. I had always been a fan of Venturi’s on-air performance. For 35 years he overcame stammering to deliver an emotional, judgmental, straight-shooting, staccato style, whether he was working with play-by-play hosts Pat Summerall or Jim Nantz. I was also very taken with the story of Venturi’s story. He’d been a student of the great Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. As an amateur young golfer, Venturi led the 1956 Masters through three rounds but shot 80 in the final round to finish as runner-up. I could relate to that! As a touring pro, Venturi won 14 times. In 1964, just as he was about to give up and quit golf, he battled near-fatal heat exhaustion in humid summer temperatures over a 36-hole final to win the U.S. Open outside Washington D.C. Venturi famously revealed that his doctors warned him that if he went out to finish the final that day, he might die. “It’s better than the way I’ve been living,” he told them. He’d also said that he was in such a state that doesn’t even remember a single shot of that final round. He only remembered picking his ball out of the hole at the end and seeing his playing partner, a young Raymond Floyd, crying for him.
“My God, I have won the Open,” Venturi said.
The underdog drama, plus the combination of golf and show business Venturi represented appealed to me, so I invited myself to the party.
Venturi was nearing retirement, so I began pitching him on the idea of collaborating with him on his autobiography. I tracked him down and introduced myself to him at the 1999 PGA Championship in Chicago, where I pitched him on the idea of a book. Venturi, in a darkened trailer at the CBS production compound behind the golf course, told me he’d consider the idea in the coming year, and then told me a few of the compelling stories he’d like to tell in the book, which I took as a very good sign. During his deliberation, I sent Venturi notes, and penned a number of stories and columns about him in the various publications for which I wrote, including PGATour.com. I made sure to run into him or stop by the broadcast booth to offer a quick “hello” when I found myself at the same PGA Tour event as Venturi. I also presented my credentials to Venturi’s agent, Barry Terjesen. Even Jim Nantz, CBS Sports’ lead play-by-play man, Venturi’s broadcast partner in the booth, put in a good word with Venturi for me.
And I waited.
The following season, on Tuesday evening of Masters week, I invited myself to the party by dropping into the lively and crowded French Market Grille, a popular spot in Augusta, to have a Jameson Irish Whiskey. CBS Sports director Frank Chirkinian was part owner of the restaurant, and, when I walked in, I noticed the entire CBS golf announce team, including Chirkinian, seated at a big table in the front with plenty of drinks in front of them. Venturi, Nantz, Bobby Clampett, Pete Kostis, and the rest. I waved to Venturi, and he gestured wildly with his arm for me to come over. When I arrived, Venturi took his hand off of his glass of Crown Royal to shake mine.
“Hey, hey Frank. Look who’s here,” he said, shouting across the table to Chirkinian. “Do you know who this is?”
Chirkinian nodded, and Nantz jumped in. “Of course we do, Kenny. It’s Michael Patrick Shiels, the golf writer from Michigan. “Good to see you Michael Patrick.”
“Yeah, yeah, he’s the author, the writer. The one I told you about,” Venturi said, waving them off and turning to me.
“Listen,” he said, “I know you want to write my book with me. You’ve got me thinking.”
“Thank you, Mr. Venturi. It would be an honor to do that,” I said, as he took a drink of his scotch.
“I want to tell you something, though,” he insisted, his voice increasing in volume to the point that some of the others at the table leaned in to see what had Venturi all riled up. He looked me dead in the eye with an intense stare. “I’ve read what you’ve written about me. I’ve seen your work. You are very talented. In fact, you have huge talent! Your writing is excellent. I know, I’ve read the things you’ve written about me, kid!”
I was nearly speechless, but I managed to thank Venturi.
“Come and see me tomorrow at lunchtime at the golf course. We’ll talk,” he told me.
At that point I didn’t need a drink – I was on a real endorphin high! My adrenaline was through the roof and I could swear my feet didn’t touch the floor as I made my way out of the restaurant and into the spring Georgia night! I had never been paid that high a compliment for my writing from such an important person. I was just flattered that he’d bothered to read my articles, let alone compliment them like that! For the rest of the night I called everyone I knew and told everyone I ran into what Venturi said. What a professional rush. I could hardly wait to see him the next day…and backstage at Augusta National. What a setting!
The next day, near noon, I strolled through the front gate at Augusta National, up Magnolia Lake, around the antique clubhouse, under the big oak tree, and down part of the 10th fairway, turning left at the Butler Cabin, and made my way beyond the par-three course to the CBS production compound, which was hidden back in the woods.
I walked into the door of the makeshift CBS offices and found Venturi, sitting all alone on a couch, eating a sandwich and potato chips off a paper plate. He looked up and me.
“Hello, Mr. Venturi,” I said, smiling. “Thanks for inviting me over. Is it a bad time?”
He nodded, still chewing, and looked at me with his piercing eyes.
“Thanks for inviting me over,” I said. “Is it a bad time?”
He gestured for me to sit down.
Easing onto a chair, I said, “First of all, Mr. Venturi, before we get started, I just want to thank you for what you said last night. Really, it meant a great deal to me, and I will never forget it.”
Venturi looked up from his plate.
“What did I say?”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“Last night. What did I say to you? What did I say?”
It’s impossible to describe the sensation of complete deflation I felt at that moment. Obviously the Crown Royal, and not Ken Venturi, gave me those genuine compliments 12 hour earlier at the restaurant.
Ken Venturi ended up releasing his book, titled “Getting Up and Down – My 60 Years in Golf” not with me, but with a writer named Michael Arkush, in 2006. In the controversial book, Venturi, among other things, accused Arnold Palmer of cheating. If you look Venturi’s book up on Amazon.com, the very first two customer reviews include these comments:
-“Wow. Ken Venturi should have never allowed this book to go to print. Did he not realize how he paints himself in his own autobiography as a bitter, selfish, whiny, excuse-making old coot? On virtually every page he shows himself to be as self-centered and clueless as they come.”
-“Somehow as good as this read was with all the fascinating stories and incidents, I thought it was slightly “I oriented” too much.”
– “The whining drunk shows his true colors. Should have been off the air at least 10 years before they finally showed him the door. What a low-life … if you’re broke, it’s your fault. And, if you lost the Masters vs. Arnie, it’s because you didn’t play well enough to win.”
In the end, was I better off not writing Venturi’s book? Or would I have done a better job of helping him present his memories in a more sensitive fashion? Neither I, nor Ken Venturi, will ever know.
Read all of our great stories on by TheAPosition.com writers as we cover The Masters.