Payne Stewart still lives in my neighborhood.
My house is 5 miles, give or take, from his bronze statue behind the 18th green of Pinehurst’s No. 2 course. On a quiet evening I can almost hear the creaking of arthritic joints as golfers balance, as steady as a circus bear on top of a bar stool, attempting to strike the same pose Stewart did on that chilly June day 20 years ago. I watched the original from the roof above the clubhouse porch. I can still feel the mysteriously cold rain spritzing my face, still hear the carillon bells of the village chapel in my ears.
I don’t think Stewart ever really left. He’s under glass in the Tufts Archives, in the back room of the library, the only building on the village green other than the chapel. His image is in an open book — exactly what his life became. His final-round hole-by-hole scores, neatly drawn in the pre-electronic media center by a traveling calligrapher with his tackle box full of rags and markers, are framed and perched in the top of a Palladian window.
In Dugan’s Pub on Market Square, on the wall beside the upstairs bar — a dark wooden thing that looks like it was commandeered from a local in Dornoch — is a snapshot of Stewart taken in the restaurant’s basement, his sunglasses drooping nonchalantly around his neck at the end of an old-school Croakie. Stewart was no stranger to Pinehurst. After his father, Bill, passed away, Payne was looking for swing help and hooked up, however briefly, with E. Harvie Ward, the back-to-back U.S. Amateur champion of 1955 and ’56. Ol’ Harv, one of the best storytellers a writer could ever meet, owned Pinehurst the way local heroes own small towns, acquiring it for the price of his smile. Men of similar proclivities, Ward took most of his best stories to the grave with him, which I think was probably true of Payne, too.
At the Pine Crest Inn, once the property of the famed golf course architect Donald Ross, there’s a first-floor men’s room in a converted coat closet. It’s convenient to the fireplace where guests pitch golf balls, and to the bar where old golf writers like Bob Drum and Charley Price, Pinehurst residents and staunch anti-prohibitionists both, pitched stories about Arnold Palmer, Bob Jones and Walter Hagen. The 6-foot-1 Stewart would have had to duck to get inside the WC. He autographed the wall in there when it was covered by wallpaper someone thought looked sporty and golfy once upon a time. The signature, framed above the cockeyed door, is big and flowing and ghostly now, as if it had been written in invisible ink. The Pine Crest is where his family and friends gathered for dinner the night before Stewart’s statue was dedicated, two years and change after the plane crash, because it was Payne’s favorite place in town. “He comes off as this real urbane, Great Gatsby type of guy and, really, he was a Missouri mule,” Chuck Cook, his longtime swing instructor, once told me. “Just a country boy from Springfield.”
In the hallway of the Carolina Hotel there’s a framed wide-angle view of Stewart on the 18th — the same vantage point I had — with the massive gallery and grandstands swallowing up the golf hole like the jaws of a great whale. He’s in the clubhouse, too, where his bronze bust sits beside a replica of his SeeMore putter — the part of the statue outside that seems eternally bent, unable to withstand the parade of wobbly models.
The 1999 U.S. Open would have been remembered no matter what — for its drama on the closing holes; for its cast of characters — but tragedy made it transcendent.
It was clear from the beginning that Pinehurst, hosting its first National Open, would be unlike any other venue the championship visits. After Stewart missed the cut the week before in Memphis, he spent the weekend, anonymously de-knickered, walking No. 2 with Cook and his chipping clubs, trying to read the mind of Ross, the irascible old Scottish architect who owned a home on the third hole and spent pretty much his whole life tinkering with the 18 that was his backyard. The teacher and student color-coded the green surrounds, identifying the most perilous spots in red. They’d done the same thing before at Opens across the pond but never in the States, never for a U.S. Open, the title Stewart prized more than any other, the championship he invariably entered using only his full name, William Payne Stewart.
He kept the yardage book with the green, yellow and red markings with him all week, a rarity since Stewart routinely had his caddie, Mike Hicks, carry it. Phil Mickelson’s wife, Amy, was due to deliver their first child at any moment. Mickelson entrusted the beeper (his ripcord should he be summoned home) to his caddie, Jim Mackay, but Stewart never let that yardage book out of his sight. Just once in four rounds did Stewart leave himself in a red zone, missing the green on the 15th with a 4-iron on Sunday. He hit a helluva shot to get the ball inside 10 feet but missed the putt, dropping him a stroke behind Mickelson with three holes to play.
If the majesty of a championship is, in part, defined by the quality of the names with a chance to win it, the ’99 Open was a royal affair. Tiger Woods was coming up for air after taking a deep dive into swing changes following his historic ’97 Masters victory. Two months after falling short in Pinehurst, Woods would win the PGA Championship, kicking off (Sergio García’s gamboling scissors kick aside) a 20-month stretch of arguably the most dominant golf ever played on the planet Earth, winning 17 times including five major championships, four of which constitute the Tiger Slam. Vijay Singh was the reigning PGA champion. Mickelson was still five years away from winning the first of his five career major championships though Pinehurst would be the launching pad of his U.S. Open almosts, the first of his six seconds. Last but not least, David Duval, who came into the championship with second-degree burns on his right thumb and forefinger after playing hot potato with a teapot at home in Jacksonville, had slipped past Woods to become the No. 1 ranked player in the world, bandages and all, having won four tournaments already in ’99, including the Players Championship. All entered Sunday’s round within three shots of Stewart’s lead.
Like most 42-year-olds — even the ones who wear red shirts on Sunday — Stewart could see the scoreboard clock running out on his best golf but he still thought he had a couple of time outs and the two-minute warning left in his career. His runner-up finish to Lee Janzen in the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club the year before convinced him of that. Stewart had attention deficit disorder that he wrestled to the ground with the help of his sports psychologist, Dr. Dick Coop. He had three degenerative discs in his lower back that hobbled him long before the then 23-year-old Woods had the slightest inkling that fusion happened not only inside the sun, but in his own stars, too. And Payne had found a peace he’d only begun to understand.
“It wasn’t a logical peace,” Coop once said. “The religion gave him a sense of what was important. I think he didn’t try as hard to be liked and he was liked more. He was accepted more by not trying so hard to be accepted.”
If such creatures exist — and they do — Stewart was a dependable U.S. Open player. Besides his two career victories he had two seconds and three other top-10s. One theory was that the very difficulty of a U.S. Open setup forced him into a state of hyper concentration, as if he could lock his ADD away in the attic for a week. Or maybe it was just that with a wedge in his hands from 75 yards and in he might have been the best in the world. That Stewart, even at 42, was in the mix in a U.S. Open for a second consecutive year was no surprise. What was surprising was the way he handled himself the year before at Olympic. After holding the solo lead in San Francisco for three days, Stewart was beyond gracious in defeat. He didn’t whine about his bad breaks (landing in a sand-filled divot) or Janzen’s good ones (his ball falling out of a cypress tree just when he thought it was lost). He owned his closing 74 and praised Janzen’s 68. He was no longer the man who refused to shake Tom Kite’s hand when he lost in a playoff or who behaved like a witless child let loose in a toy store when Mike Reid collapsed at Kemper Lakes Golf Club and dropped a Wanamaker Trophy into his lap. Those things hadn’t been expunged from Stewart’s record but, whether it was maturity or something more, his better angels had finally shown up.
The presence of Singh (whose chances went begging with a bogey on the 16th) and Duval (who ended up shooting 75-75 on the weekend) notwithstanding, it was Woods, Mickelson and Stewart — playing in that puffy rain jacket, its sleeves crudely amputated with a pair of scissors on the practice ground — who lit a roaring fire against the cold and damp. On the 16th, a hole that played so hard only three players hit it in regulation all day, Woods hit a 4-iron to 12 feet, revving up the roars with a birdie 3 to pull within a shot of Mickelson’s lead, tied with Stewart. He bunkered himself on the par-3 17th, though, and missed a 5-footer to give it right back.
Stewart’s approach on the 16th was a thin, pulled 2-iron, and he followed it with a horrible running pitch from 10 yards off the green, racing the ball 25 feet past the hole. Mickelson missed the green short and right and chipped to 8 feet. Stewart’s putt was a ludicrously difficult downhill, double-breaker. He made it in the heart. The noise was deafening, the decibels piled on top of Woods’ crescendo. Stewart’s only reaction was to chew his gum harder and give a perfunctory wave of his hand, no more demonstrative than dropping a couple of quarters into the basket at a toll booth. To the sports psychologist Coop, that moment was the culmination of their work together. It was everything they’d tried to achieve, at least on a golf course. When Mickelson missed, they were tied. “Then he hits this three-finger 6-iron,” Mackay has said, always with a touch of admiration in his voice. It was as elegant, as rhythmic a golf swing as Stewart, who had been blessed with the rhythm of Ray Charles, ever made. Mickelson followed with a fine tee shot of his own, a couple of feet outside of Stewart’s 4-footer. When Phil missed and Stewart made, Payne was a shot ahead with a hole to play.
Up at the clubhouse, Woods had a good run at birdie on the 18th but burned the edge. He would finish tied with Singh at 1-over par. Stewart drove over the bunkers on the uphill dogleg right closing hole but didn’t reach the fairway. The ball sucked straight to the bottom of the Bermuda rough. (The rough Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore would strip away in their renovation of No. 2 years later.) As soon as he saw the lie he knew he was laying up short of the cross bunker. Mickelson’s 7-iron approach was 30 feet right of the hole, leaving a big, sweeping putt. Stewart’s lob wedge stopped 18 feet below the cup. Mickelson missed. What remained was electric in its simplicity. All Stewart needed was a good, old-fashioned U.S. Open par.
Heeding the advice of his wife, Tracey, Stewart had used the same putting routine all day — two practice strokes with his eyes closed to feel the distance, then concentrate on keeping the head still. It never occurred to the ball to miss. He punched the air, striking the pose that would bedevil Pinehurst visitors decades into the next century. Stewart didn’t even know his feet never left the ground. “It felt like I was sky high,” he said. “It felt like I was way up there.” And he was.
Hicks jumped into Stewart’s arms the way a baby orangutan clings to its mother, comical and endearing in the same heartbeat. As the caddie retrieved his trophy — the flagstick he’d tossed up into the air as if it had magically caught fire — Stewart took Mickelson’s face in his hands. Every amateur lip reader in America saw the words and knew he was telling Phil something more important than golf, than trophies, than U.S. Opens, than the moment. He didn’t try as hard to be liked and he was liked more. When all the interviewing was done, after Tiger and Phil left in their private jets, Stewart got in an old van with his caddie. Driving behind a police escort, they bought a 12-pack of beer at a convenience store, half of which Stewart drank on the way to Mebane, N.C., and Hicks’ home. Stewart was to play an exhibition there the following day with Fred Couples, Paul Azinger and Hal Sutton. When they got to Hicks’ house the player and caddie sat up drinking champagne and then white lightning out of the U.S. Open trophy until Stewart’s head sagged and Hicks was able to sneak off to bed around 4 a.m.
Of all the near misses Mickelson has had in all his U.S. Opens, the one he holds free of all regret is Pinehurst.
But the ’99 U.S. Open can no more be separated from what came after it than night can from day.
First came the Ryder Cup at The Country Club and what would be, at the time, the greatest Sunday comeback in the history of the matches. Stewart, who was known for blaring out Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. as the team reveille, didn’t factor in the victory on that Sunday and yet Hicks would tell you, then and now, he was never more proud of him.
“What I’ll always remember is the Brookline thing,” Hicks has said. “What he did there with Monty.” The Boston crowd had been Boston cruel to Colin Montgomerie all day. On the last green, Stewart picked up Monty’s coin, giving him their match. “The old Payne Stewart wouldn’t have done that,” said Hicks. “He’d have been thinking about his individual record. He wouldn’t have been thinking about the big picture. I was very proud of the way he handled himself that whole day. Those people were ruthless. He had a couple people ejected. He really stuck up for Monty. That’s probably the most memorable moment I have, just the way he conducted himself that day.”
When Stewart won his first U.S. Open, beating Scott Simpson in a playoff on a baked-out Hazeltine National Golf Club in 1991, he bought champagne for the media, à la Tony Lema, who died at 32 when the twin engine Beechcraft he was traveling in crashed on a golf course in Lansing, Ill. After the United States defeated Europe at The Country Club, Stewart was among the players standing on the roof of the pro shop spraying champagne on the fans who didn’t want to leave. There exists a picture, taken later that night, of Stewart wearing a T-shirt and American flag sweatpants, champagne in one hand, beer in the other, dancing on a piano. For many in that room, it would be the last time they would see him.
On Oct. 25, almost exactly a month after the Ryder Cup, Stewart, Van Ardan, Robert Fraley and Bruce Borland boarded LearJet N47BA piloted by Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue at Orlando International Airport. It was a perfect day for flying — blue skies, puffy white clouds, a light breeze. At 9:26 a.m. they were cleared to climb to flight level 390 to Dallas. The response, “three nine zero bravo alpha,” are the last known words spoken on the airplane. From then until 12:12 p.m. CDT the ghost plane, its windows fogged after a catastrophic loss of cabin pressurization, was followed by F-16 fighter jets. It flew like a porpoise, climbing until it bumped up against the plane’s maximum altitude of 48,900 feet, then descending to a level where its engines functioned efficiently again, then climbing back to its apex. Over and over until it came down like a javelin in a farmer’s field outside Mina, S.D.
Years later Jon Hoffman, the farmer who owned the field, gave me directions to the crash site. He offered to lead me there but I told him I thought I could find it. For some reason, I wanted to go by myself. The rental car rattled down the dirt road, flushing a few pheasants. The entry wound on the earth was shockingly compact. “That’s where they are,” Hoffman told me. There is a simple fence and a simple stone marker that says, in part,
He brought me up out of the pit of destruction,
Out of the miry clay;
And he set my foot upon a rock
And he gave me a firm place to stand.
I got to know Payne Stewart better in death than I ever knew him in life. Tiger Woods was nearly 3 years old when he appeared on The Mike Douglas Show. Payne Stewart was 3 years old when he appeared on a local Springfield TV station making French toast. There was a set of specially made wacky fake teeth that Stewart particularly enjoyed wearing when he played the Par-3 Contest at the Masters and a set of harmonicas he traveled with that allowed him to defile pop music in virtually any key. He was a horrible fan, the Bill Shoemaker of bench jockeys, so awful the Orlando Magic moved his seats from behind the bench to the other side of the arena.
“He would needle you,” Hicks once said. “And, you know what, a lot of guys didn’t like it. If they all say they liked him, they’re lying because he was tough, man. He would needle you and he would go overboard with it. He could take it, too. But he’d get under your skin if you let him.” But kids? He’d slam the brakes on those shiny metal-toed shoes to give any of them an autograph.
I don’t know whether the bells from the village chapel were playing Angels We Have Heard on High or Amazing Grace that drizzly, cool Sunday. I can’t remember and I was probably never certain anyway. As a boy Stewart spent a lot more time in the balcony of Grace Methodist in Springfield than I ever did in church so I called the Rev. Dr. John R. Jacobs, the current pastor of the Village Chapel. Maybe he knew. “It could have been anything,” he said. Chances are, Stewart never heard them anyway. If the roar at the 16th green didn’t break his concentration, what chance did a few bells in a chapel have? But, whatever it was, it was just right.
Of all the near misses Mickelson has had in all his U.S. Opens, the one he holds free of all regret is Pinehurst. “It turned out the way it was supposed to,” he said. Who among us could ask for anything more?
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