In an age of ubiquitous social media where news spreads in nanoseconds and the word “viral” has little to do with infectious disease, it’s easy to forget what it was like in those horrible hours 20 years ago. At that time, word of the “incident” spread through a series of frantic phone calls that began a little after 11 a.m. that Monday morning, Oct. 25, 1999. Wives did most of the coordinating in those days. Cellphones were a luxury less than half the population owned. But because of all the travel, they were common among spouses and players on the PGA Tour. That morning’s conversations weren’t about hotels or playdates. They were urgent, clipped, bordering on panicked. “Julie, it’s Katie. Have you heard about the plane?” “Debbie, it’s Tammy, there’s a problem on a plane.” That was the only way they knew how to describe it. Details were near nonexistent. None of them used the word “incident,” which is what the Federal Aviation Administration called an unpiloted Learjet streaking across the American Midwest as experts attempted to predict where it would come down.
Air-traffic controllers had only a few labels: The first was to call it NORDO, which was a contrived acronym for “No Radio,” an indication that an aircraft had lost radio contact with controllers. Sometimes the problem was mechanical; sometimes microwave interruptions on a frequency could cause a plane to lose radio communications. In those cases, pilots were supposed to remain on their assigned heading and altitude so controllers could direct other aircraft around them. But NORDO didn’t apply in this case. “Deviant aircraft” didn’t seem appropriate, either. This was pre-9/11, a time when “deviant aircraft” usually referred to low-altitude prop planes carrying contraband over the swamps of Florida or the desert Southwest. This was something different. And referring to it as a “crash” seemed macabre, even though everyone from the FAA director to the person who swept the floor in the control center knew that a crash was coming. But until that happened, the official designation was “incident.” Of course, the wives didn’t know that. They only suspected that something was horrifically wrong aboard an aircraft. And it was up to them to get the word out ahead of the media.
Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, an avid golfer and friend of many players on tour, was one of the first with the news. Limbaugh called Tom Watson. Watson’s wife, Hilary, called Sally Hoch (Scott’s wife) at home in Orlando. The Hochs were neighbors with Payne and Tracey Stewart and their two children, Chelsea and Aaron. “I’ve got something I have to tell you,” Hilary said to Sally. “There’s a plane that has depressurized and is flying around on autopilot. Everyone is gone.” Hilary paused for what couldn’t have been a beat or two but it seemed to Sally like an eternity. “One of them is Payne.”
Sally called Bev Janzen, wife of Lee. The Janzens lived two doors down from the Hochs in a gated community along the Butler Chain of Lakes in Orlando. Bev barely recognized the voice on the other line. “Get over here!” Sally screamed.
By then, cable news had run amok with speculation. CNN had aviation experts confirming that if, indeed, reports of ice on the windows was accurate (reports coming from military aircraft that had reportedly intercepted the Lear) then the cabin had depressurized and at the hostile environment of 40,000 feet, everyone on board had fallen unconscious in a matter of seconds and died within minutes. Fox was the first to utter Payne Stewart’s name.
“Everybody wants to focus on the tragedy but I just hope people remember what a good player he was,” Paul Azinger said last week. Azinger was one of Stewart’s best friends and gave a stirring eulogy at his funeral. It was the first time the public got a glimpse of what a great communicator Azinger is. His emotional connection with attendees during that service played an instrumental role in him becoming a television analyst. What most people don’t know is that Azinger was so shaken by Stewart’s death that he has little recollection of that service and no idea how he found the words he delivered that day. A man of great faith, Azinger chalks that moment up to divine intervention. But he also wants everyone to remember the things about Stewart that occurred before that service, before the statue at Pinehurst and the Payne Stewart Award given every year at the Tour Championship. He wants people to remember the Missouri twang and how Stewart could wear out a stick of gum, long before anybody laced the stuff with CBD oil; how his laugh could be heard three fairways over and how he loved a good practical joke.
“You know, I always believed that I was a better player than Payne,” Azinger said. “We’d play practice rounds together and I always thought I was better than he was. But then you look back on the records, and he was pretty darn good. Isn’t that funny? The guy’s got three major championships. That’s a short list right there. But it’s not until he’s gone and you look back and realize his career was really something.”
Azinger doesn’t talk about Stewart’s death much. He’s asked every October and always declines. He only wants people to remember the good. “There were only two players that when I played practice rounds with them I thought, I need to be doing what he’s doing,” he said. “They were Payne and Nick Faldo. They were so methodical in their preparation. I would see Payne hitting shots and think, ‘I need to be over there doing the same thing.’ ”
Azinger and his wife, Toni, remain close with the Stewart family, as well as with Dixie Fraley, the widow of Robert Fraley, who also was aboard the doomed flight and who was the agent for Stewart, Azinger and many other athletes. Dixie still lives in Winter Park, Fla., just northeast of downtown Orlando. Chelsea Stewart, Payne and Tracey’s daughter, works in sports marketing, and Aaron, their son, recently was named executive director for the LPGA’s Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in Orlando.
Their lives march on, time having loosened the vice of grief. But no one who lived through that day has forgotten.
It was supposed to be the first step in a new career path. Payne had seen many of his peers get into golf course architecture. He wanted to be careful, though. After his 1991 U.S. Open victory, he had, in his words, “chased the almighty dollar,” traveling around the world in an attempt to cash in. While he’d made a lot of money during that period, his game had tanked. He hadn’t even been invited to the 1998 Masters. And while he and Tracey had celebrated Mark O’Meara’s victory in that tournament with a bottle of wine in their bedroom, Payne felt a pang knowing he not only should have been in Augusta, he should have contended. Two months later, he almost won the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, falling one shot short of his neighbor Janzen. Then came 1999, winning the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, and the iconic image of Payne punching the air, his back leg extended. He’d subsequently been on the Ryder Cup team that engineered a historic Sunday comeback to defeat Europe at Brookline. Now, it was time to wind down. He had one more tournament, the Tour Championship at Champions Golf Club in Houston, Jackie Burke’s place alone “since (Jimmy) Demaret died on me,” Burke would often say. His scheduled Monday stop in advance of the tournament was in Dallas for a meeting that might help launch a signature course-design career. Stewart had one course design under his belt – Coyote Hills in Fullerton, Calif. His agents, Fraley and Van Ardan, had been researching other potential sites, visiting Nashville, Tenn., and North Florida among other places. As long as Payne was playing, which he planned to do for some time, he didn’t want more than two design projects a year, if that. “I don’t think it would be fair to my family or my golf game,” he told anyone who asked.
Dallas had potential. Developer Jeff Blackard had found a 700-acre site in Frisco, where today the PGA of America is spearheading development of a golf mecca around its future headquarters. Payne had gone to Southern Methodist University, not far away. The Monday meeting was with Blackard and a fellow named Jeff Mundy, who worked for Tom Hicks, owner of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise. Originally Blackard had thought about coming to Orlando but that didn’t make sense. Payne was on his way to Houston anyway. Why not stop by? He could fly in for the day with Ardan, Fraley and a golf course architect named Bruce Borland, who worked for Nicklaus Design. They could meet at Casa Dominguez, Payne’s favorite Mexican restaurant in Dallas, then go to the site and kick around the dirt. After that, it was off to Houston for the tournament and then home to Orlando for the offseason. The Stewarts and Hochs had planned a big Y2K party with friends from Isleworth. That was going to be fun.
They flew with a charter company called SunJet Aviation. Their 43-year-old pilot, Michael Kling, was a former Air Force officer and high-altitude instructor. His retirement goal was to start a church in the Orlando area. He’d already formed Eagles Wings International, a small Christian mission that, in his words, “delivered food and the gospel to developing countries.” He had 4,000 hours of left-seat time in jet aircraft.
Kling’s co-pilot was a 27-year-old former college swimmer named Stephanie Bellegarrigue, a free-spirited Salvadoran immigrant who had settled in Winter Haven, Fla., with her family in 1983. She was, in the words of her friends, “rambunctious,” and the kind of woman who “liked going against the grain.” She’d spent the previous weekend in Daytona Beach, Fla., at Biketoberfest, an annual Harley Davidson ride-in. Having a famous golfer on board for this trip was just one more adventure in a life lived at the edge of cool.
“Orlando tower, November-four-seven-bravo-alpha ready for departure left runway three-six,” Kling radioed the tower at 9:16 a.m. that Monday after everyone settled in.
“Roger, four-seven-bravo-alpha, taxi to position and hold runway three-six left.” David Johnson, the tower controller, tried not to yawn. It was a slow morning. When the pattern cleared, Johnson cued his mike and said, “Four-seven-bravo-alpha clear for takeoff runway three-six left.”
Kling responded as he had countless times, “Four-seven-bravo-alpha rolling.” It was 9:19.
Johnson’s last contact came as the Lear 35 climbed out of tower control space. “November-four-seven-bravo-alpha, contact departure one-two-zero-point-one-five.” Routine all the way.
Kling said, “Departure. Good day.”
Eight minutes later, Orlando center handed the Lear off to Jacksonville (Fla.) Air Route Traffic Control Center, or Jax Center. “November-four-seven-bravo-alpha climb and maintain flight level three-nine-zero,” a controller said.
“Three-nine-zero,” Kling responded.
Those were the last words heard from anyone on board. Ten minutes later, at 9:54, Kling should have turned west over Gainesville, Fla. That was his flight plan to Dallas and what he’d been cleared for by Jax Center. When the controller called the tail number again, there was no response. The controller tried again. Nothing. As procedure dictated, the controller listed N47BA as NORDO. Within minutes, however, everyone realized there was a much bigger problem.
Joe Hambrite, a supervisor at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center, which actually was located well south of the city in the town of Hampton, Ga., closer to Atlanta Motor Speedway than the airport, plugged into his Display System Replacement sector console for his required eight hours when the call came through. Hambrite hadn’t been an active controller since 1987 but he still enjoyed his time on the floor, even though he caught endless grief for his attire. The FAA had no dress code so controllers went as casual as they could. That October day, one of the guys working next to Hambrite had on dirty jeans and a Jonny Quest T-shirt. But not Joe. Hambrite, a tall African-American with a well-groomed beard and distinct baritone voice, dressed to the nines in dark double-breasted suits, white shirts and stylish silk ties. That day was no different. With polished Italian loafers and a freshly pressed suit, Hambrite ignored the snickers as he plugged in to work his sector. That’s when the call from Jax came in.
“Got a NORDO,” the caller said. “Last assigned three-nine-zero. I’ll get you a strip, so show him NORDO.” A strip was an identifier for controllers. It would show the type of plane and the original flight plan. It would not tell anyone who was on board.
Hambrite’s heart skipped a beat. Failure to turn on course indicated the plane was probably on autopilot. Throw in the fact that it had been NORDO for five minutes and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that something was terribly wrong. Hambrite took deep breaths and found the Lear on his scope. He paused before speaking, thinking through every word. He was being recorded and in addition to being the flashiest dresser in the Atlanta Center, he was the king of the malaprop, inventing words like “circulosity” for the spherical nature of an object and “unthoughtedly” for boneheaded behavior. At that moment, Hambrite knew that his every utterance would be transcribed and scrutinized. The first order of business was to clear the traffic from around the rogue aircraft. One problem was enough. Having a “deal,” which was controller lingo for allowing planes to get too close to each other, would only exacerbate an already tense situation.
Then John Riley, a controller at the DSR next to Hambrite, said, “Uh oh.”
“What?” Hambrite asked.
“Orlando to Dallas Lear. That’s gotta be a golfer.” Riley was a single-digit handicap and a big fan of the PGA Tour. “The tour was at Disney last week and in Houston this week. Those two cities … it’s gotta be a golfer.”
Everyone was quiet for a few seconds. Then Hambrite called in reinforcements.
At 10:08, Hambrite contacted Air Force Staff Sgt. James Hicks, a controller at Eglin Air Force Base near Destin, Fla. “We have a Lear that’s NORDO and failed to turn on course,” Hambrite said. “Do you have anybody that can help?” By then N47BA was north of Tallahassee, Fla., and continuing on a north-northwesterly path. Hicks had an F-16 airborne on maneuvers. The pilot, Capt. Chris Hamilton, broke away and headed north. Two F-15s scrambled out of Tyndall AFB near Panama City, along with an A-10 Warthog from Eglin. But Hamilton was the first to make visual contact. It was 11:08 a.m.
“It was flying straight and level,” Hamilton said at the time. “It didn’t seem like anyone was at the controls. The entire time I was trailing the aircraft, nothing had changed. That’s very unusual.”
When he moved into formation beside the Learjet, he knew. There was ice on the windows. He tried to make radio contact. No luck. That could only mean one thing: The cabin had depressurized. Everyone on board was dead. “It was disheartening,” Hamilton said later. “At that point I realized it was going to continue on that heading until it ran out of fuel.”
That was exactly what happened with the whole world, including Tracey Stewart, watching. As the fuel level decreased, the plane gained altitude, climbing as high as 70,000 feet before the air became so thin that the wings had no lift. Then it dropped back down and started to ascend again, porpoising as the aviation folks called it.
Sgt. Jim Sutton of the North Dakota Highway Patrol jumped in his car when he saw a plane begin a spiraling descent. The town was Mina, 12 miles northwest of Aberdeen. “We were on the scene in five minutes,” Sutton said. “We were actually there before we had a call reporting it.” What Sutton found was a small debris field and a pile of indistinguishable rubble. Had he not known it was a jet, he never would have guessed the wreckage was anything larger than a pickup truck. It had hit the ground at more than 600 mph, compressing the plane into the dirt like an accordion and sending debris as deep as 30 feet underground.
Although the pilots and passengers had been dead for hours, it was hard for Sutton to comprehend that this pasture in Mina was the final resting place for six vibrant souls who had bid their families goodbye that morning and taken off from Orlando on this mysterious and tragic flight. Sutton didn’t know that the pile of scrap metal meant 10 young children were now fatherless and five loving wives were now widowed. He didn’t know that a young woman in her prime had been snatched away before her 28th birthday. And he couldn’t have appreciated the national grief that this crash would cause. All he knew was that Payne Stewart, the professional golfer who wore knickers and an old-style touring cap, was one of the passengers. He also knew that it was a sad day to be a state trooper.
Back in Florida, the Stewart residence had become a gathering spot. Bev Jansen, Alicia O’Meara and Sally Hoch were among 11 friends who were there when the plane made its final descent. Husbands soon followed. Mark O’Meara went from Bay Hill, where he had been playing in a charity outing, home to Isleworth. Then he drove his boat across the lake to the Stewarts’, where he found Norm Ferguson, Tracey’s father, standing on the end of the dock staring out at the calm waters of Pocket Lake. O’Meara had seen Ferguson in that same location many times before, having a beer, sharing a laugh, and chatting with his son-in-law. All O’Meara could do was offer a weak hug and a heartfelt “I’m sorry.”
After a moment, Ferguson said, “Payne was my son-in-law but he was much more than that. He was like my son.”
In the years that followed, that became the sentiment of the golf world.
Those close to the tour had no idea how much Stewart meant to the casual fan, how connected people were to the guy who wore knickers because he wanted to stand out. Maybe it was the fire they could see, the way he worked that chewing gum like it was fighting back and stared daggers through golf shots, daring them not to get close. Maybe it was his Christian conversion and the transformation that followed. Payne was one of those true cases of a changed man, a person who started his professional career as a juvenile jerk, but who put away childish things and extended a gracious hand in his final years on earth. Maybe it was the way he held Phil Mickelson’s face and said, “You’re going to be a father,” after winning their U.S. Open duel in Pinehurst. Whatever it was, the public bonded with Stewart and mourned his death in deep and profound ways.
Every year during the week of the Tour Championship, the recipient of the Payne Stewart Award is honored. That first Tour Championship the week he died, Payne was the one honored. A memorial service was held on the first tee at Champions. Tom Lehman spoke and a lone bagpiper disappeared into the morning fog while playing Amazing Grace, a scene that moved the hardest of men. Then, in the parking lot, Payne’s spot became a shrine. People wrote notes and left flowers. As late as Sunday afternoon, the rectangular strip of asphalt was the one spot where spectators ignored passing players. The fourth lined space nearest the locker room door was much more important than a two-second blow-by with Tiger Woods or Davis Love III.
Sarah Cleil was the last visitor. She prayed on her knees inside the painted lines by the fence, tears flowing freely as her husband removed his cap and waited behind her with his head bowed. She stayed only a minute. Like most, she left nothing but her prayers and took nothing but her memories. But others left items that would have meant nothing to Payne but meant everything to those who honored him. Cindy Marshall Henderson left a 20-year-old Southern Methodist University T-shirt with a handwritten sign that said, “Class of ’77. We will miss you.” Someone else draped a towel from the 1999 U.S. Open over the temporary railing. Others tied a half-dozen WWJD (“What Would Jesus Do?”) bracelets that Stewart had taken to wearing like ribbons beside Payne’s nameplate.
Someone taped a photo below the PGA Tour logo. It was Payne between two teenagers, brothers from the looks of it, one in his early teens and the other old enough to have attempted a mustache. The boys were beaming with pride as their idol put his arms around them. The picture, with the words “Houston Open 1999” on the top, flapped in the breeze beside a bouquet of orchids and a printed card of the 23rd Psalm.
Some visitors wrote lengthy notes. A woman who signed her name Anita W. penned a tribute to a man she’d probably never met. “Gathered at your feet are many gifts from God,” she wrote. “Knowledge of yourself, love of family and the ability to be loved by them, and by dear friends, and also a great love and talent for the sport of golf. You have earned your fitting place in the history of the game. Congratulations on a remarkable year. Now go to your God in peace knowing that He and your dear friends will be with your family. They will not be alone in this time of sorrow. And may they later know the serenity and peace you now feel.”
Arthur Davis, a large African-American man with a noticeable limp and an infectious smile who was a maintenance worker at the Ramada Inn in Jasper, Texas, read those words during his visit to the parking-lot shrine. “That’s just right,” he said. Davis had brought an arrangement of azaleas, which he carefully removed from a plastic grocery bag and laid on the ground beneath Anita W.’s card. “I’ve been watching him since he first started coming here,” Davis said with a subdued grin. “I’ve only missed four Houston Opens in 36 years and I watched Payne every time he played.” Then his face tightened and his voice began to crack. “I lost my daughter when she was one year older than Payne. ’Course, she knew it was coming with the cancer.”
After a moment when the only sounds from the parking lot were a courtesy-car trunk shutting and the deep breaths he took as he considered the location of his gift, Arthur Davis finally said, “I brought azaleas. I always thought red was his favorite color.”
Payne’s impact on people, whether loved ones, professional peers, casual acquaintances or perfect strangers, is why he still matters; why we have the Payne Stewart Award and why his statue has become synonymous with the Pinehurst Resort. That is why, 20 years later, we remember.
PHOTO CREDITS: Payne Stewart with daughter Chelsea at the 1991 U.S. Open (Reuters, Action Images); Stewart wins the 1999 U.S. Open (Reuters); Stewart with his wife, Tracey (Stuart Franklin, Action Images); Stewart during the third round of the 1999 U.S. Open (J.D. Cuban, USGA); Stewart and Mark O’Meara during the 33rd Ryder Cup (David Cannon, Allsport); Stewart and Phil Mickelson at the 1999 U.S. Open (Reuters); Bagpiper Steve Agan at Stewart’s memorial during the 1999 Tour Championship (Reuters); Stewart’s parking space at the 1999 Tour Championship (Adrees A., Reuters); Chelsea Stewart with her dad’s statue at Pinehurst (Courtesy of Chelsea Stewart)
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