Payne Stewart: The Joy and the Heartbreak
Walk off the 18th green at Pinehurst No.2—the host course for this year’s Men’s and Women’s Golf Opens—and you will see a statue showing the unbridled exaltation of Payne Stewart sinking a 15-foot par-putt on Father’s Day in the 1999 U.S. Open, holding off Phil Mickelson, and winning his third major championship.
Three months later in September Stewart participated on the American side that rallied from four points down on the final day of The Ryder Cup Matches at The Country Club to reclaim golf’s grandest team prize. All seemed so perfect. The 42-year-old was playing the game he relished at the highest level, a loving close knit family, and a future beckoning ever brighter.
On October 25, 1999 Stewart’s life ended tragically.
A horrific crash played out in slow motion as the airplane he and several others were on flew on autopilot across America’s heartland. Authorities stated a sudden loss of pressure in the cabin likely blacked-out everyone quickly. All were presumably already dead before the crash occurred in an open field in South Dakota.
The shock was felt throughout the global golf scene. Stunned by the suddenness of it all and asking why.
This was not the first time a talented golfer had his life cut short. In late July 1966 “Champagne” Tony Lema, along with his wife and several other passengers, crashed on a charter plane. Lema had won The Open Championship in 1964 at The Old Course at St. Andrews and his career and life—like Stewart’s—was moving impressively forward.
What might have been for Stewart and Lema had they lived is unknown—conjecture and supposition are problematic because the golf road is littered with unknown twists and hard to explain turns.
Stewart regaled galleries with his colorful “plus fours” pants and flat caps. Recognizing Stewart was never an issue for those in the gallery or watching on television. But it was his golf that elevated Stewart to much more than a celebrated fashion show. The win at Pinehurst was significant because he beat back an emerging talent in Mickelson and the ever-growing ascendancy of a relative new face on the PGA Tour—Tiger Woods.
At the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach a “21-gun” salute was carried out by his fellow Tour players with each hitting teed-up balls with drivers from the 18th fairway out into Carmel Bay. Beyond his two U.S. Open wins Stewart also finished second in the championship twice—both times to Lee Janzen in 1993 at Baltusrol and losing a four-shot final round lead at The Olympic Club in 1998. His playing record also included two-second place finishes in The Open Championship—including a championship tying 18-hole low round of 63 in 1993 at Royal St. George’s.
The USGA saw fit to provide one of golf’s highest honors—the Bob Jones award—and Stewart is this year’s recipient. The award is bestowed on those who have demonstrated distinguished sportsmanship—characteristics exemplified by Bob Jones in becoming the legendary golfer and man he was. Stewart will be honored during a public ceremony as part of the festivities surrounding this year’s U.S. Open.
“Payne’s legacy continues to shine as an inspiration to players of all ages,” said Thomas J. O’Toole Jr., USGA president. “His spirit and gracious attitude left an indelible mark on everyone who surrounded him. His presence can still be felt by players who were fortunate enough to play with him and by the junior golfers that his Payne Stewart Foundation continues to support.”
“Payne Stewart personified the ideals of character, charity and sportsmanship, and is a worthy recipient of the USGA’s Bob Jones Award in the backyard of his greatest triumph,” said PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem. “Because of the virtues he extolled, the annual Payne Stewart Award was introduced by the PGA Tour in 2000 to pay tribute, carry on his spirit and serve as a reminder of just how special he was to us all. We are thrilled to see Payne receiving further recognition for his contributions, both on and off the golf course.”
At the Pebble Beach ceremony Paul Azinger—one of Stewart’s closest friends on tour said it poignantly and succinctly using one of Stewart’s quotes, “I want to make sure my life is special while I’m here. You will be remembered, but will you be missed?” Indeed he will.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.