UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – A replica of the silver U.S. Open trophy, sitting on a table inside a portable tent at Chambers Bay, brought a smile to Ken Still’s face, not a tear to his eye.
Without a doubt, winning the U.S. Open would have been a life-changing event for the Tacoma native who spent almost 60 years of a professional career hitting a little white ball around the country, making birdies, eagles and friends along the way.
Winning the Open never happened for Still, but he doesn’t dwell on what might have been, but the here and now. And his excitement for the game and the Open remains on par with just about any tournament he ever played during a magnificent career.
The 79-year-old was among the early arrivals at Chambers Bay on Friday, when the local media was given an update on preparations for the 115th U.S. Open, scheduled for June 15-21, 2015.
Representatives from the USGA, Chambers Bay and Pierce County agreed that things could not be any better with the clock ticking towards the start of the first U.S. Open played in the Northwest.
“I can’t wait,” Still said. “It’s an honor for the Northwest and an honor for University Place to hold this great tournament. I grew up in University Place. My folks moved here in 1937 and I used to ride my bicycle down here.
“There was a dirt road, no cars. There were no houses. No nothing. Where the golf course is now was just a sand and gravel pit.”
Never for a moment did Still envision that this wasteland hugging the Puget Sound would become a world-renowned links-style golf course.
“No way,” he laughed.
But it happened and in slightly more than 11 months, more than 180 countries will be watching television coverage of the 72-hole event that features the greatest golfers in the world.
Ken Still used to be one of those best-in-the-world golfers.
A three-time winner on the PGA Tour, the closest he came to winning the coveted U.S. Open title was a fifth-place finish in 1970 at Hazeltine National Golf Club, a few miles from Minneapolis. It was the first time in USGA history that the national championship was played on a practically brand-new golf course.
“I shot 78 in the first round,” Still recalled, “and that wasn’t bad. The average score that day was 84. The wind blew like crazy. I shot 71-71-71 the next three rounds, finished fifth and won $5,000. I thought I broke the bank.”
The following year, Still finished sixth at the Masters and still regards Augusta National as the best golf course he ever played.
He played in other U.S. Opens, on both the PGA and Champions Tours.
The first two are among the most memorable.
Still became a golf professional in 1953, soon after his high school graduation. Five years later, he qualified for the U.S. Open out in a qualifier played at Tacoma Country Club. The Open was played at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.
“It was the best cut I never made in my life,” he said. “There was 105 percent humidity and 110 degree temperature. For a guy who grew up in the Northwest, playing in that kind of weather didn’t work. I didn’t stay cool.”
In ’59, he was the low qualifier from the Northwest, claiming one of the two available U.S. Open invitations.
“I played with Jimmy Powell and Bob Toski and Winged Foot in New York,” he recalled. “I get to the 13th hole in the first round, look up at the scoreboard near the 14th tee and there is a red ‘2’ behind the name ‘Still’. I went triple-bogey, triple-bogey and color of the number changed colors.
“I shot 78-82 and left town. Billy Casper won it.”
Still retired from the Champions Tour in 1996 and hasn’t missed it nearly as much as he thought he would. “I miss the guys and still stay in touch with my peers. They are good people.”
As for next year’s Open, Still hopes his health allows him to attend. He nearly bled to death almost two years because of an ulcer, losing six pints of blood. He said that if his wife, Linda, hadn’t insisted on calling an ambulance instead of driving her husband to the hospital, “I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”
He has played Chambers Bay once, shooting a 77 “from the tips” two days before the course officially opened seven years ago. “I played with Michael Putnam and he shot a 70. It was a helluva score.”
Although he has received permission from the doctors to play, Still says he is completely retired now.