Byron Nelson officials honor Venturi, longtime friend of tournament namesake

The first clue that Saturday would not be business as usual at the HP Byron Nelson Championship occurred when flags were lowered to half staff at the Four Seasons Resort.

Another indication will come in Sunday’s final round when golfers will wear red ribbons in memory of Ken Venturi, the longtime CBS golf analyst and 1964 U.S. Open champion who died Friday.

Venturi, 82, enjoyed a close relationship with the namesake of Irving’s annual PGA Tour stop. When Venturi was a promising amateur, he turned to Nelson for free lessons and advice about making it as a professional golfer. He found a lifelong mentor and friend, which made it appropriate that Nelson officials joined their CBS colleagues in paying tribute to one of golf’s legendary voices and underappreciated players who was inducted May 6 into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Peggy Nelson, Byron’s widow, recalled Saturday how her husband’s face would “light up whenever Kenny would call,” with each conversation concluding with both men saying, “I love you.”

“It was just a precious, precious friendship,” Peggy Nelson said. “I think that, if Byron could have, he would have adopted Kenny. They had the same ideals about helping those less fortunate in any way they could.”

Nelson, who died in 2006, always pointed to this tournament — which has raised more than $126 million for local charities since its inception, more than any other PGA Tour event — as his crowning achievement in a Hall of Fame career. Venturi always identified Nelson as his role model in professional golf, calling Byron “the finest gentleman the game has ever known” and frequently saying he made decisions in his own life based on how he thought Nelson would have handled the situation.

That selfless approach made Venturi one of golf’s iconic figures during 35 seasons as CBS’ lead golf analyst, a stint that concluded in 2002. It is why Mike McKinley, the 2013 Nelson tournament chairman, took steps to honor an individual he called “a great friend of the tournament” who will be missed by event organizers in Irving.

“Ken was the first of the young golfers that Byron mentored and he remained very close to Byron,” McKinley said. “The world of golf has lost another of its great gentlemen.”

More than a decade after his final broadcast, Venturi remains the longest-running lead analyst for any sport in the history of U.S. television. It is a mark that Lance Barrow, CBS’ coordinating producer for golf telecasts, considers every bit as unbreakable as Nelson’s 11 consecutive victories in PGA Tour events, set in 1945.

“There’s no way that anyone will ever win 11 tournaments in a row. And there will be no one, ever, in sports television again that will have the run that Ken Venturi had,” said Barrow, a Fort Worth native and Colleyville resident. “No one will even come close to it as an analyst in any sport, much less in golf.”

For Barrow, Venturi’s death struck an emotional chord. It came one month after the passing of legendary broadcaster Pat Summerall, who teamed for years with Venturi as CBS’ play-by-play man on golf telecasts. For golf fans, the Summerall-Venturi tandem carried the same clout as the Summerall-John Madden tandem on NFL telecasts.

Now, both Summerall and Venturi are gone. Barrow viewed both men as mentors, causing his voice to crack Saturday as he discussed “an unbelievable month” within the broadcast industry.

“Everybody felt like they knew Pat Summerall and everybody felt like they knew Ken Venturi,” Barrow said. “When they would see them somewhere, they would act like they were buddies… because they were on TV all the time. Ken and Pat always treated people tremendously. They gave back. A lot of people don’t realize all the things that Ken Venturi gave back to the game and gave back to people. Ken always tried to do everything that Byron Nelson taught him.”

Two notable examples: Venturi, like Nelson, never charged for a golf lesson he gave to a pupil because he considered it his duty to give back to the game. And, like Nelson, he always inquired about the existing course record when he played an exhibition match. Following Nelson’s lead, Venturi made sure he never broke it if the record was held by the club pro because the club pro was there every day and Venturi was only visiting.

“That’s what Ken Venturi was like,” Barrow said.

That’s the reason tournament officials lowered the flags Saturday in honor of a legendary announcer who won 14 PGA Tour events in an injury-marred playing career. It’s why CBS officials opened Saturday’s broadcast with a 15-minute tribute to Venturi. The only other time the network took that approach, Barrow said, occurred in the wake of Ben Hogan’s death in 1997.

For Venturi to merit Hogan treatment says a lot about how much he was esteemed in the golf world. And in the Nelson household, where Peggy Nelson said their “dear, dear friend” will be missed today by everyone wearing red ribbons at the event named for her late husband.