John McGrath

John McGrath: 45 years later, Ken Still gets his ring

When it comes to golf, nothing much surprises 79-year old Ken Still. In keen detail, the Tacoma-born Fircrest resident can recall every birdie and bogey of a career highlighted by three PGA Tour victories, two top-10 finishes in major tournaments, and friendships ranging from associations with the rich and famous to, well, the not-so-rich and not-so-famous.

But when Still opened a letter sent from the PGA the other day, he found himself flabbergasted.

“I thought it might be my PGA credentials,” said Still, who is an instructor at Fircrest Golf Club. “Or that it was time to renew my dues.”

It was time, as it turned out, for Still to be recognized as a participant on the 12-man U.S. Ryder Cup team of 1969.

“They sent me an onyx ring with my name engraved on it,” he said. “Unbelievable. I haven’t got a clue how this happened, but what an honor.”

The 1969 Ryder Cup remains among the most compelling tournaments in a series that began, in 1927, as a biannual competition between the U.S. and Great Britain/Ireland. Americans had dominated the previous 17 Cups — 14 victories, three losses — but they were the “road team” that year at Royal Birkdale, where the air was thick with attitude atypical for a golf event.

During a team meeting, British captain Eric Brown told his players not to assist any American looking for golf balls hit in the rough. Although Brown eventually rescinded the order, a tone of contentiousness had been set, and it appealed to feisty U.S. captain Sam Snead.

Still, meanwhile, needed no inspiration.

“When I heard a band play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ before the first match, I got shivers,” he said. “To be the first Washington-born player representing my country in the Ryder Cup was the thrill of a lifetime. Since I was a little kid, it was something I’d dreamed about.

“And five minutes later, I was teeing off with Lee Trevino as my partner. I told Lee, ‘I’m so nervous, I’m afraid I’m gonna whiff this.’ And he said: ‘So go ahead and whiff it, and let’s get out of here.’ ”

Tensions escalated on the second day, when Still and Dave Hill were paired against Bernard Gallacher and Brian Huggett in a best-ball round. On the par-3 No. 7, Hill tapped in a short putt to win the hole, but Gallacher and Huggett argued the shot was taken out of turn, and the referee sided with them.

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

Still and Hill ended up prevailing, 2 and 1, but the sheer intensity of the match — a brawl almost broke out on the eighth hole — has become Ryder Cup legend.

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

Contributing to the fever-pitch climate of the 1969 Ryder Cup was the fact the teams were headed for a photo finish. Of the 32 matches, 17 weren’t determined until the final hole — including the last match between Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin, famously recalled as “The Concession.”

Left with a 2-foot putt to halve the hole — and deadlock the tournament — Jacklin, the defending British Open champ, was spared the potential ignominy of missing a gimme when his marker was picked up by Nicklaus.

The U.S., Nicklaus reasoned, had retained possession of the Cup with a 16-16 tie. As for Jacklin? He was the face of British golf, contemplating a putt that posed a cruel premise: If the ball rolled in, there was nothing to win. If it didn’t roll in, there was everything to lose.

Nicklaus’ gesture of sportsmanship wasn’t unanimously embraced by his American teammates, and it’s easy to envision Snead, the crusty captain, bristling.

“But I was OK with it,” said Still, who has retained close ties with Nicklaus. When plans were submitted to expand the American Lake Veterans Golf Course — the only golf course in the U.S. specifically designed to help rehabilitate wounded and disabled veterans — Still, a forceful proponent of the “Wounded Warriors” golf project, asked Nicklaus to design the nine-hole addition.

Nicklaus took the job at no cost.

“We’re hoping to get the new nine holes in operation by next June,” Still said. “Ideally, it’ll coincide with the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.”.

About that ring he and his eight living Ryder Cup teammates were given after 45 years: Does Still plan to wear it?

“Will I wear it?” he answered with a cackle. “Are you kidding? A ring with my name on it, showing that I represented my country? Will I wear it?”

I’m guessing it fits.