John McGrath

John McGrath: From Ken Still’s tough roots grew an American Dream

jmcgrath@thenewstribune.com

In the snapshot that best sums up Ken Still’s vivacious spirit, the Tacoma golf legend is wearing the kind of plain white T-shirt that would bar him from any country club’s hallowed grounds.
In the snapshot that best sums up Ken Still’s vivacious spirit, the Tacoma golf legend is wearing the kind of plain white T-shirt that would bar him from any country club’s hallowed grounds. Staff file, 2015

In the snapshot that best sums up Ken Still’s vivacious spirit, the Tacoma golf legend is wearing the kind of plain white T-shirt that would bar him from any country club’s hallowed grounds.

It’s Sept. 6, 1969, a few minutes after the Tacoma Cubs’ clinching of the Pacific Coast League championship series. Still has the ebullient look of a hard-working man not at work. He’s hoisting a Champagne bottle, one among several in a group photo that could be subtitled “Good Times Never Seemed So Good.”

During the most successful of his 43 professional golf seasons, nothing gave Still more joy than celebrating with the first championship team in Tacoma history.

Still loved baseball, despite the fact — or, perhaps, because of the fact — the sport was as much of a grind for him as it’s been for a bazillion other kids. Golf can be grind, too, but Still likely realized he had a knack for the game the moment his driver made clean contact with a ball off the tee. Natural talent and a determination to excel can be a potent combination.

Still was from the branch of the golf family tree that dates back to Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Still’s contemporary, Lee Trevino: Prodigies who weren’t sons of privilege. Private schools did not precede college and personal swing instructors. Scrambling to make ends meet, golf offered an improbable version of the American Dream.

Still was proud of living the dream from hardscrabble roots, and proud of the country that enabled him to be all he could be. It is not a coincidence that the most acrimonious of Ryder Cups, in 1969, was Still’s only experience with the U.S. team.

Seems that on the eve of the first day of competition at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England, British captain Eric Moore instructed his players to avoid assisting Americans on ball searches in the rough. The suspension of protocol found tempers simmering the following day, when Still and partner Dave Hill were paired against Bernard Gallacher and Brian Huggett in a best-ball round.

When Hill tapped in a short putt to win at No. 7, Gallacher and Huggett argued the putt was taken out of turn. The referee ruled against the Americans and awarded the hole to their opponents, escalating tensions to the point a brawl nearly ensued at No. 8.

“We were right and they were wrong, and so was the referee,” Still said in 2011. “It was like the umpire blowing a call at home plate, calling the runner safe when it’s clear he’s out.

“I still get calls from the British press about that round. We were made out to be villains and we were innocent. It was ridiculous.”

The incident reflected two characteristics about Still: He was fiercely opinionated, and on those hundreds of occasions golf took him away from home, he returned with a story to share, sometimes in the form of a parable.

Take, for instance, Still’s first-round struggles at the 1967 Houston Invitational, where he finished with a 7-over-par 78. Suspecting he had next-to-no chance of surviving the cut, Still made reservations with Braniff Airlines for a late Friday-afternoon flight from Houston to Sea-Tac via Dallas.

“But on Friday,” he would remember, “I shot a 2-under par 69, making the cut by two strokes. The plane I was to take from Houston was hit by lightning, and all 87 aboard were killed. I’ve always been a believer in never quitting, and it really came true in this instance.”

Still, who became a golf instructor upon the conclusion of his touring career, told many a student about how persevering through a difficult round at the Houston Invitational saved his life.

And what a life. Gregarious and approachable, Still spent the last six decades of his 82 years on a first-name basis with just about everybody on the pro golf circuit but, uh, Gallacher and Huggett, those British dudes who won a lost hole on a disputed technicality.

Of his many close friends, none was more influential than Jack Nicklaus, who shared Still’s belief in golf as therapy for wounded military veterans. While serving as point man for the expansion of the American Lake Veterans Golf Course in Lakewood, Still called on Nicklaus to help with the project.

“’We’ve got nine holes of golf out here, and it’s playing 40,000 rounds a year,” Nicklaus recalled Stills telling him. “’We need more golf. All these veterans, they’re unbelievable, and I want to help them.’ 

Nicklaus’ response to the request for assistance basically could be translated into “Say No More.” Golf’s all-time majors winner donated his time to design a back nine at American Lake, which ought to be renamed the “Ken Still Memorial Golf Course.”

Then again, maybe not.

To Still, who parlayed the meager earnings of a teenaged caddie into the ticket that opened up a whole new world, America always came first.

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