First and foremost, Fircrest’s Ken Still loved being in the presence of people.
He just happened to find a successful career in professional golf that would enable him to entertain them on a daily basis.
Still played golf for nearly 50 years all over the country, winning three times on the PGA Tour and playing in the biennial Ryder Cup — the highest honor for a professional golfer.
One of the Tacoma-area’s first true sports celebrities, the charismatic, gallery-friendly Still died late Sunday from kidney failure. He was 82.
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His death came on a day when the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational was played in Orlando, Florida — the first PGA Tour event he won, 48 years ago.
“Ken Still was and is Tacoma golf,” said University Place’s Michael Putnam, a Fircrest Golf Club product who has played on the PGA Tour and is now on the Web.com Tour. “He not only loved us pros from Tacoma, he loved the (military) veterans from American Lake Veterans Golf Course, the kid from Meadow Park, the boy at First Tee and the girl from the local golf club.
“He spoke life into everyone he would meet.”
Early on, Still’s dream was to be a professional baseball player.
In the spring of 1950, Still — then a 15-year-old — was up early to go field ground balls. Later that day, he was ready to play in a youth baseball championship game in University Place.
As he was set to take off on his bicycle, his uncle Gene Morissette made a suggestion that changed his life forever:
Ride your bicycle to Fircrest Golf Club and see if you can get a caddie loop.
“I made $1.50,” Still said a couple of years ago. “Two days later, I quit baseball. With golf, there was something about it. It got in my blood quickly.”
Still won three PGA Tour tournaments — the 1969 Florida Citrus Open Invitational, the 1969 Greater Milwaukee Open and the 1970 Kaiser International Open Invitational. He placed in the top 10 at major championships, too — fifth at the 1970 U.S. Open and tying for sixth at the 1971 Masters.
And Still was a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 1969 at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in England that ended in a 16-16 tie.
Still could recall not only the first time he ever swung a golf club, he remembered what club it was — a Byron Nelson 5-iron.
“I whiffed on about 100 shots that first day,” Still said.
Admittedly a shy teenager, Still said caddying at Fircrest Golf Club allowed him to find his voice — and his contagious personality.
“My life changed,” Still said. “I came out of my shell. The members treated me like gold — and I was never treated like that. I became a people’s person.”
Still learned golf on his own. Five months after he graduated from Clover Park High School in 1953, he turned professional.
Over the next decade, not only was Still not winning tournaments, he often considered quitting the PGA Tour.
Still credited Oscar “Ockie” Eliason, the longtime head professional at Allenmore Golf Course, and two-time Northwest Open Invitational winner, as the man who turned around his career.
In 1964, Still was practicing at the Lakewood Driving Range. Eliason approached him and gave him a tip that turned his fortunes around.
“He said, ‘One more inch on your hip turn,’ ” Still said. “The light came on.”
A few weeks later, Still traveled to Vancouver (B.C.) Golf Club to play in the British Columbia Open. He clipped Al Feldman by one stroke to win his first professional tournament.
And the rest, you could say, was a fairway stroll on the PGA Tour, then on the Champions Tour — until he retired in the late 1990s.
“Ken had the gift of encouragement and impacted so many lives with his positive energy,” said Lakes High School graduate Brian Mogg, who credits Still as a mentor before he headed off to Ohio State in the 1980s, then to the PGA Tour. “His love for people, and sports, was unparalleled.”
Still continued to teach lessons at the club where he first caddied — Fircrest Golf Club — but cut back after he started battling health issues over the past few years.
Still was instrumental in creation of a new set of nine holes at American Lake Veterans Golf Course, persuading longtime PGA Tour colleague and close friend Jack Nicklaus to design the new layout — virtually cost-free. It opened in June.
Nearly a month ago, Still moved to the Orchard Park Health and Rehabilitation Center in Tacoma, where he recently decided to forgo kidney dialysis.
Over his final days, Still had a steady stream of visitors and daily phone calls from Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, who live in Florida.
He is survived by his wife, Linda Still (Evans); his son, Mark Evans; and his brother, Fred Still.
A public funeral will be at 11 a.m. March 31 at St. Charles Borromeo, 7112 S. 12th St., Tacoma, with a reception to follow at Fircrest Golf Club. Donations can be made in Still’s memory to St. Charles church or American Lake Golf Course.