Yet, like almost anyone who has risen to the top of his profession, Venturi worked terribly hard to get there. His early life was the very antithesis of the one he now leads. His father, Fred Venturi, worked for a ship chandler's firm on the San Francisco Embarcadero until, at 45, he quit his job to take over the pro shop at the municipally owned Harding Park golf course. By the time he was 17, Ken was playing in national junior tournaments and working at golf. He arranged his high school classes so he could finish early enough to have a full afternoon of practice at Harding Park. He usually arrived at the golf course by 2:30 and practiced steadily until 5:30. He got home just in time for supper at 6, then went to Shaw's Ice Cream Parlor, where he served ice cream until 9:30. Saturday mornings he mowed lawns to earn another $15 a month, and at the golf course he washed cars in the parking lot for extra cash. "I was always very frugal," he recalls with pride. "I always seemed to have a lot of jobs." Then he won the San Francisco City Golf Championship, a major event on the sports calendar in that city of enthusiastic golfers. He was the youngest player by many years ever to win the tournament.
"I really didn't hit the ball very well in those days," Venturi will now admit. "I had a bad grip, and there were a lot of things wrong with my swing, but I was a great chipper and putter. Like all kids, I didn't know what it meant to be afraid of a putt."
He went to college at San Jose State, where he earned his way by sweeping out classrooms, waited on tables in a sorority house and passed sandwiches in the press box during football games. And he kept playing lots of golf.
There was, by now, a new force at work in his life—Lowery. Lowery collected topnotch golfers the way Barbara Hutton has collected titles. He was an excellent amateur golfer in his own right, and he liked to play where the scores were low and the stakes were high. He and Venturi began to play regularly, and Venturi for the first time learned about pressure. "I got used to being where a lot of money was riding," he recalls, "and I didn't get scared off by it. I probably never had more than $10 or $20 of my own on a match, but for me that was blood, and I knew that Lowery was going with me for a lot more, sometimes $600 or $700. We used to have some real matches in those days. I remember once one of our opponents shot a 65 and lost every bet."
In the summer of 1952, Lowery introduced Venturi to Byron Nelson, another man who was to have a profound effect on Ken's career. They played a round in San Francisco, and Venturi shot a 66. "I was kind of cocky, figuring I had really produced for someone I wanted to show off for," Ken says now, "and I thought to myself, 'There's not much he can help me with!' When we got in I said, 'Well, Mr. Nelson, what do you think?' "
"I'll meet you out here tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock," Nelson replied. "There are seven or eight things you should correct."
Nelson made basic and necessary changes in Venturi's game, helping Ken develop the rhythmical swing that came to be considered as classically perfect as Hogan's. Venturi soon started moving up in the amateur golf ranks, and the years of controversy began. It was charged that Lowery's influence—and that alone—got him on the 1952 Americas Cup team and the 1953 Walker Cup team. In January of 1954 he was drafted into the Army. His assignments had a way of being close to golf courses, and this, too, attracted attention and criticism. He was eventually sent to Austria, possibly to quiet some of the talk, and he returned at the end of 1955. He was now only 24 years old, and his career had hardly begun. He went back to practicing under Nelson's eye, and in early 1956 he received an invitation to the Masters through a vote of the former Masters champions. From that moment on, he was destined to be a figure of national prominence. This was the famous Masters that Venturi led for three days. It was an informal Masters tradition then that the fourth-round leader would play with Byron Nelson, and that is how everyone assumed the pairings would read when they were posted over the mantelpiece in the Augusta clubhouse on Sunday morning. But when the large white sheet went up, Sam Snead's name was beside Ken Venturi's. Cliff Roberts and Bob Jones, who run the tournament, had felt it would cast a shadow on Ken's victory if he were to play the final round with the man who had been his tutor. Ken shot an 80, and he lost the Masters by a stroke.
He flew back to San Francisco that night and found the press waiting for him when he disembarked. During the ensuing interview, Venturi unburdened his frustrations with a number of statements that could well have been left unsaid—or even unthought. Some San Francisco golf writers who had long felt that Venturi was too proud of Venturi put his observations in the worst possible light. "It wasn't that I didn't say what they wrote," Ken laments even today. "It's that things were not quoted completely." The gist of the story on the sports pages from coast to coast was that Venturi felt he had been unfairly treated by the tournament committee. The net effect was to make Venturi look like a crybaby, and this impression remained in a great many minds for years. At the same time the feeling grew that Venturi was aloof, self-centered and intolerant.
"I don't think I'm that way at all," he explains now. "I admit I'm a loner at heart, and what I do I have to do by myself. When I'm on the golf course I have to think about what's ahead, what kind of shot I'm going to play next. I find the only way I can be relaxed is to keep my mind completely on the game. When I talk to people I lose my concentration, and then if I hit a bad shot or a stupid shot I get mad at myself and lose my composure. Other people, like Mike Souchak, relax when they have someone to talk to or by going over and saying hello to someone in the gallery. I just can't do that. If I see someone in the gallery and just barely nod to them, people think I'm being standoffish or something, but actually a slight nod from me is like Mike going over and giving them a big slap on the back."
In September of 1956, Venturi—now working as a golfing auto salesman for Lowery—lost a third-round match in the U.S. Amateur Championship to Bob Roos. Roos was a wealthy San Francisco clothing-store executive who belonged to the Lowery golfing clique, and Venturi had played with him hundreds of times in the past. "After Roos beat me," Ken recalls, "I went home and began to think to myself, if I can give Bob Roos two strokes a side and beat him every time we play and then lose to him in the National Amateur, then I could go the rest of my life and never win the Amateur. I thought, 'What the hell am I doing?' My life was neither one thing nor the other. When I was working all day I wasn't practicing golf, and when I was practicing golf I wasn't selling cars." Lowery finally forced the situation to a climax by offering to make Venturi a gift of a company, Lake Merced Motors.