In the days leading up to the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, thousands of words have been spoken and written about Payne Stewart, the champion of an unforgettable Open at Donald Ross’ Sandhills masterpiece in 1999 who tragically perished in an equally unfathomable aviation accident just four months after hoisting the trophy.
Reading and watching the remembrances of Stewart and the ’99 Open have been at once enjoyable and poignant, bringing back memories of a vibrant champion and a stunning loss. In its most recent issue, Sports Illustrated went so far as to call Stewart’s victory over Phil Mickelson at Pinehurst “The Greatest U.S. Open Ever.” And I’d submit that Stewart’s death aboard a runaway LearJet on Oct. 25, 1999, was golf’s JFK moment.
Although I recall being glued to the TV as Stewart clinched his greatest victory, handing Mickelson the first of six runner-up finishes in our national championship with a dramatic 18-foot par putt on the 72nd hole, my most vivid memories of Stewart are not from Pinehurst but from a less distinguished resort track about 550 miles to the south.
Three years before Stewart won his second Open title, I was inside the ropes at Walt Disney World’s Magnolia Course as he dueled a rookie named Tiger Woods in the final round of the Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic. Woods, who had left Stanford and turned pro less than two months earlier, was in the midst of a rock-star debut stretch that had included a victory in Las Vegas two weeks before; Stewart, meanwhile, was a colorful two-time major winner who had seemingly plateaued, having won just once since his U.S. Open victory at Hazeltine five years earlier.
One stroke off the lead starting that October Sunday, Stewart and Woods teed off in the fourth-to-last twosome but quickly surged to the forefront, each going out in 4-under 32 and making the turn tied for the lead. As they strode to the 10th tee, I rushed from the media center to grab a front-row seat for the finish.
I was not disappointed. For the first time, I witnessed up close Woods’ sheer power; on those last nine holes, he routinely outdrove Stewart by 50 yards or more. But Stewart was unflappable, his elegant tempo steadfast. On the 14th hole, a dogleg-right par-5 of nearly 600 yards, Woods cut the corner off the tee, hit 3-wood into a back bunker and got up and down for birdie. Stewart, meanwhile, smoothed one down the middle, laid up and nestled a wedge close to match his opponent.
In the end, Stewart’s putter let him down. Despite hitting all 18 greens in regulation that day (Tiger missed only one), Stewart narrowly missed five back-nine birdie putts, including a 12-footer on 18 that he left hanging on the lip. His closing 67 left him one shy of Woods, who shot 66 and earned his second Tour title.
Though he no doubt burned about an opportunity missed, Stewart was gracious in defeat. “I’ve got no regrets,” he said in the interview room afterward. “All the accolades have to go to Tiger Woods for the way he played.”
Three years later I was back at Disney, roaming the range early in the week, when I spotted Stewart hitting balls. I stopped for five or 10 minutes to gaze at his seemingly effortless, hypnotic move. “It was a thing to envy … or a thing to marvel,” Ben Crenshaw would later say of Stewart’s swing.
No swing is perfect, however, and Stewart missed the cut that week. On Sunday, I watched as Woods, by then a two-time major winner, won another Disney title, this time edging Ernie Els by a stroke. And on Monday morning, Oct. 25, I was in Golfweek’s Orlando newsroom when reports broke about the loss of contact with a Dallas-bound jet with a PGA Tour pro believed to be aboard.
When we received confirmation that it was Stewart’s plane, my blood ran cold. As we worked feverishly on deadline to report the tragedy and eulogize Stewart on deadline, I couldn’t believe that the man I had watched hitting balls just days earlier was gone.
In the issue we published that week, my colleague Brian Hewitt, who’s now my editor at Global Golf Post, wrote of Stewart: “His passing has left an emptiness at the core of his sport. Stewart was an original. And it is for that reason that his memory will never fade to black. He just had too much color.”
The Stewart tributes of recent days have rendered those words prophetic. And the accounts have been enriched by the graceful participation of Tracey Stewart, Payne’s widow, for whom the media outpouring must be both gratifying and heart-wrenching. The same must be so for Stewart’s children, Chelsea and Aaron, who were 13 and 10 when their father died.
Watching a short ESPN film titled Love & Payne last week, I listened to Tracey speak matter-of-factly of how shortly before leaving for Dallas, her husband expressed that he didn’t want to go anywhere, that he wanted to watch his kids grow up. She said she wished she had told him not to go.
Remembering how I felt when I first heard about Stewart’s plane, I ached anew as I considered that I’m now 42, the same age Stewart was when he died, with two kids of my own.
A few days later, I read Sports Illustrated’s retrospective on the 1999 U.S. Open and was struck by Tracey’s closing quote, which sums up the events of that year simply and profoundly:
“So much joy before so much tragedy.”