Ken Still last talked to Arnold Palmer on Sept. 13, three days after The King’s 87th birthday. Still could tell that his old friend was faltering, but he was in great spirits and, as always, joking around.
Even in recent years, the two visited on the phone every couple of weeks, usually talking about old times or their families or baseball. Or, on this occasion, the incomprehensible passage of time.
“He said, ‘Can you believe the old man is 87?’ ” Still recalled. “I said, ‘I know, and I’m 81.’ ”
To the grief of his legion of admirers, Palmer died Sept. 25.
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Still and Palmer had been friends since the early 1960s and never lost touch. Palmer went on to revolutionize the world of golf, while Still shaped a marvelous career with three PGA Tour wins and a life as more of a regional golf icon from his hometown of Tacoma/Fircrest.
“He treated me like we were brothers,” said Still, who now spends 3½ hours three times a week on a dialysis machine.
As background for Palmer’s memorial service Tuesday, I wanted to mine Still’s recollections for anything about Palmer that the typical golf fan might not know.
But it turned into more of a story about the lasting relationship between Palmer and Still, and what it was about Still that caused him to be such a treasured friend of superstar athletes like Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
It reflects a great deal about Still, and the kind of person he’s been.
“I don’t know where Arnold got the love for me, but I cherish it all my life,” Still said.
As close as they became, Still said he was initially intimidated by Palmer, and hoped he’d never be paired with him.
“I was a young kid on the tour and we got paired together in the Memphis Open in 1963,” Still said. “I hit a bad drive and he hit his second shot about 6 inches from the cup, and people were going crazy because he was The King. I put my second shot in the bunker and blasted out to about a foot.”
Still ended up rallying, beating Palmer 69 to 70 that day.
“All of a sudden, I don’t know what happened, but we became close friends,” he said. “Maybe it was something about our personalities.”
Palmer told Still that if he ever needed anything to be sure to ask. When Still was named Washington’s athlete of the year for 1969, the organizers of the event asked him to see if he could get Palmer to attend. Still asked, and Palmer, an accomplished pilot, flew his own plane to Seattle.
Some executives at Boeing got wind of Palmer’s visit, and arranged for him to pilot a test-model 747. Still was on-board for the ride. “Arnold loved every minute of it. He was in the left seat, piloting, and he landed it, too.”
The next day, Palmer was in the cockpit of his own plane again, flying Still and a few associates to La Costa, Calif., for the Tournament of Champions.
“We took off from Boeing Field and he took us straight up to 42,000 feet and put it on automatic pilot,” said Still, who was not at all comfortable with daring aeronautics.
“I told myself, well, if we’re going down, at least I’m going down with Arnold Palmer. I think that trip made us so much tighter. I could never say enough good things about him.”
Still killed time during his dialysis on Friday by watching coverage of the Ryder Cup, particularly interested in following Puyallup’s Ryan Moore. It triggered poignant recollections for Still, who was the first Washington golfer to represent the U.S. in a Ryder Cup, being named to the team in 1969 for the battle at Royal Birkdale in England.
“That was the biggest thrill of my career, without a doubt,” he said. “Lee Trevino and I were partners in the second match. I’ll be dead honest with you, my hands were shaking like you couldn’t believe. But I hit it 280 down the middle of the fairway. Lee and I got beat 2 and 1.”
Still’s wife Linda said that the dialysis tires Ken, but he’s “doing OK.” They had considered the option of getting on the transplant list a few years ago, she said. “But Ken decided there are so many people who need kidneys that he thought it would be better for a younger person to get one, somebody who had his whole life ahead.”
Many of Still’s own army of friends offered to be tested as transplant candidates, but he decided against it because so many others were needy.
“I thought that was very generous of him,” Linda Still said.
Yes, very generous. Perhaps that’s the best example of the kind of person who would come to be such good friends with the legendary Arnold Palmer.
It seems pretty obvious that Still may now have lousy kidneys, but he’s always had a first-rate heart.