Tom Keegan: Ross Randall, beloved coach, friend, story teller, remembered fondly

Former KU golfer and current PGA player Gary Woodland, left, and former KU golf coach Ross Randall spectate at Alvamar Country Club Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009.

Former KU golfer and current PGA player Gary Woodland, left, and former KU golf coach Ross Randall spectate at Alvamar Country Club Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Forever armed with a phenomenal short game and wry wit that kept his playing partners laughing and his opponents crying for 18 holes, former Kansas golf coach Ross Randall did some of his best work telling stories on the 19th hole.

He had so many, most inspired by the players he coached on the Kansas men’s golf team for 28 years, that the coach thought about compiling them in a book. It won’t ever be written. Randall, 71, died Friday night of a heart attack at the Boynton Beach, Fla. home he shared with wife Linda.

Ross, who had struggled with health issues brought on by diabetes, did get as far as picking out a title for the book: “Coach, where are they playing the Masters this week?”

Randall was behind the wheel of the team van when one of his players, who at the time obviously had far more playing talent than knowledge of the PGA tour, asked him that question, and Randall had himself a story for life, although he left out the player's name.

The accomplishments of Randall’s teams — the 1999 Big 12 championship, 19 NCAA regional appearances, five All-Americans, two players who won PGA tour events, etc. — take a back seat in the van ride of his career to the relationships he and Linda shared with players long after they had carded their final birdies for KU.

When he retired, they came from all over the country to spend time with the Randalls and each other, and did the same at a dinner in his honor after he earned induction into the Kansas Golf Hall of Fame in 2014.

"That was a great funeral," Randall cracked. "I got to hear everything."

Linda Randall said by phone that Ross' final day was filled with good news and laughs. It started with a visit to the doctor's office and a "very encouraging" report, Linda said. Then they had lunch with Dan and Linda Woodland, parents of Randall's best player, two-time PGA tour winner Gary Woodland. Later, there was a text from famous golf instructors and old friends Butch and Craig Harmon, prompting Ross to say to Linda, "These brothers are so funny. You should see this text."

At the end of the day, Linda said, Ross turned to her and said, "You know, this has been a great day." He then went off to brush his teeth and it was there that he had the heart attack.

Linda said Gary Woodland visited her at home Saturday, a day filled with former KU players reaching out to Linda.

"Those boys, I can't even tell you how great they've been," Linda said. "The outpouring of love from them has been unbelievable."

Professional golfer and Lawrence resident Chris Thompson, a two-time All-American for Randall at KU, took time between watching his children’s games in Lawrence to talk about his friend and former coach.

“Ross and Linda didn’t have kids of their own and they always felt like part out our family and we felt like part of theirs,” Thompson said. “He recruited good players and good athletes, but he recruited good people too. It’s been a special fraternity to be part of and Linda has been extremely instrumental in all of it.”

Randall greeted players with a simple question after they completed their rounds: “What’d you shoot?”

The players, some more quickly than others, came to learn that there was no point in making the answer any more complicated than the question. Those who started explaining the bad breaks that prevented their score from being what it should have been were interrupted with the same question: “What’d you shoot?”

“He was one of a kind,” Thompson said. “I feel like he was always honest with me. He was not afraid to tell the truth: ‘This is what you’re good at. This is what you’re not good enough at.’ He played on tour (for eight years), so his advice on the golf course and off the golf course meant a little bit more because he played golf at the highest level.”

Brad Barnett, one of Randall's KU players, captured the sentiments of so many with a Facebook post that in part read: “A great teacher, mentor, coach, father figure, and one of the best story tellers of all-time leaves behind a wonderful wife and a fraternity of adoring former players.”

Woodland paid tribute to him with an Instagram post: “Heavy heart today after the passing of a man who has impacted my life both on and off the course. Coach Randall believed in me when no one else would give me a chance. His faith in me was so strong, that when I decided to play basketball at Washburn, he told me I was making a mistake and that my future was in golf. He provided unconditional support, even when I called and asked if I could transfer to KU. I'll miss getting his text every week after I play on Tour telling me what I need to do to get better, and the phone calls checking in to make sure I am still working the right way. I will never forget the lessons and the opportunities you gave me, Coach. RIP Coach Ross Randall.”

At the other end of the athletic-ability spectrum from Woodland, plenty of former slicers shown by Randall how to draw the ball at Alvamar (since renamed the Jayhawk Club) remain just as grateful to him.

His friends marveled at his ability to teach and to hunt pins.

“When I first started playing with Ross if he had a 10-foot birdie putt (that meant) he missed his second shot,” John Wachter said. “He was never very powerful, but his short game and his irons were as good as anybody I’d ever seen, even on TV. And he had a great eye. He never told you anything on the course, but when you got done, he’d tell you what you were doing wrong and give you one simple adjustment.”

Randall grew up in California and as a senior at San Jose State was one of six college golfers named to an All-American team that included Johnny Miller and Hale Irwin.

Ross didn’t always keep such talented company. He had the displeasure of playing golf with me several times.

Once I was stunned at botching a 2-footer and snarled, “How could I miss that?”

Maybe I had hoped to hear Ross offer an excuse, such as a pebble knocked it off course. Not a chance.

“Gee, I don’t know,” he said, then pantomimed my putting stroke while jerking his head toward the sky. That sarcastic demonstration took root far better than “Keep your head down,” would have. It pains me to think I'll never talk with him again, but I feel better already just reliving that moment and many others.

Friends wiping away tears at the news will keep Ross with them in memories that will bring smiles, memories of a great guy blessed with a rare sense of humor, a wonderful marriage, and so many players who over time became more like sons.