Two characters: Ernie Ransome (above) and Ken Venturi (below).
Golf predates that cable network with the slogan "Characters Welcome." The game has always attracted outsize personalities with equal measure of attitude and charm. Two of our great characters left us this past spring, but their footprints remain deeply impressed in the landscape.
Ernie Ransome was the president of Pine Valley from 1977-'88 and, in that club's tradition, its all-powerful dictator. He presided over annual meetings that took no more than six minutes as, for example, the club treasurer would report, "I have not seen the financials, but I'm told income exceeds expenditures." At which point, Ransome would interrupt, "All in favor of the budget submitted by the treasurer, say, 'Aye.' All opposed, say, 'I resign.' " And so it would go with each committee chair. Admissions would have carefully vetted a group of member candidates and submitted them to Ransome, who thanked the committee and pulled out from another pocket the actual list of accepted new members. In the interest of disclosure, I was on the latter list almost 30 years ago, so I always had a soft spot for the hard guy. Ernie also liked to say he was the chairman of the Exit Committee.
My favorite Ransome story involved the exposed intersection of Pine Valley's 11th fairway and 16th tee. One day as Ransome was approaching his ball on 11, a golfer hit a particularly bad drive off 16 and, reacting viscerally, winged his club into the sandy waste in front of the tee.
Ransome, with hands on his hips, did what might be described as a slow burn in the fairway, which caught the eye of the angry golfer still standing on the tee. "We...don't...throw...clubs...at Pine Valley," Ransome finally boomed.
"I'm the member in this group," yelled back the angry golfer. "Who the [expletive] are you?!"
To which, Ransome immediately replied: "Not anymore you aren't." Then to the caddies: "Boys, take the bags in."
One can only imagine the conversation among the ex-member and his guests on the trudge to the parking lot.
Another character, Ken Venturi, was known for overcoming a stammer as a child to serve as the longest-tenured lead analyst in sports broadcasting history. He was never reticent about giving his opinion, and the most poignant instance was described in a Golf Digest interview (May 1994) recalling an exchange just prior to Tony Lema's plane crash in 1966.
Venturi coached Lema, and they were friends. After the '66 PGA at Firestone, Lema had agreed to speak at an Italian-American club in Akron for $500 but later was offered $2,000 to appear at another event, where sponsors were offering to fly him to and from, so Lema took the better offer. Venturi was asked to intercede.
"I didn't teach you to bow out because of money," Venturi told Lema. "I tried to teach you to be honorable."
"I don't care. I'm going for the money," Lema said.
The last thing Venturi said was, "You will live to regret those words." Later that night Venturi went to a movie, and when he returned, he recalled going to the front desk to collect his room key. The clerk said, "Hey, it's too bad about that golfer that got killed."
Venturi said, "I didn't have to ask who it was. I knew."
Ransome, 86, and Venturi, 82, lived robust lives to the end, helping lots of people along the way. Venturi's work with Guiding Eyes for the Blind was legendary. He was inducted in absentia into the World Golf Hall of Fame just 11 days before his death.
Staff Writer Max Adler got his master's in English Studies at the University of St. Andrews on a two-year Ransome Scholarship. "No matter where I went in golf, everybody knew Ernie," Adler says.
In his final days, Ransome was asked if he had any fear of dying. "I'm not afraid to die," he said, in character. "I just don't want to be there when it happens."
VENTURI AT THE WHEEL
Golf Digest Contributing Photographer Stephen Szurlej shot Ken Venturi many times over the years and even took a playing lesson from the old pro. "I recall him putting up with my poor play one day in Florida," Szurlej says. "He drove me up to the point my tee shot left the golf course and entered a swamp fit only for gators and snakes. Ken looked at me and said, 'FIDO.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'Forget it; drive on.' " Or words to that effect.