Writer relates poignant memories of Payne Stewart, gone these 20 years

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By Del Lemon
Special to Golf Oklahoma

Del is the author of Golf In Oklahoma and a member of the Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

Twenty years ago (September 1999) my wife Leslie and I received an invitation, courtesy of Golfsmith International co-founder Frank Paul, to hear Payne Stewart, the reigning US Open champion, address an audience at Austin’s Renaissance Hotel.

We were elated. During many years of writing about golf in Texas and Oklahoma I had seen Stewart play at Southern Hills, Oak Tree, Las Colinas and Augusta National, but I had never interviewed him. Stewart, 42, had just inked a contract with Austin-based Golfsmith to play their new line of irons—Lynx forged blades—on the 2000 PGA Tour. “They’re going to knock everybody’s socks off,” said Stewart.

Stewart had just captured his second US Open title, four months previous, at Pinehurst No. 2. At Austin he would be addressing the 11th annual meeting of the Golf Clubmakers Association.

Even as a three-time major champion, who played his college golf at SMU, Stewart had been something of an enigma of sorts, an extremely talented player, prone to dramatics, with a competitive edginess that spanned the Atlantic.

Payne Stewart

Stewart’s midwestern roots ran strong. A native of Springfield, Missouri, Payne’s father Bill Stewart saw to it that he was exposed at a tender age to tournament golf at the championship level. A traveling salesman who sold bedsprings in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas, Stewart’s dad was a heck of a player himself, successfully qualifying for the 1955 US Open. Twice a year, he and Payne would drive to Kansas City to watch US Open and US Amateur qualifying.

The night of Stewart’s speech—October 16, 1999—Golfsmith technical guru Tom Wishon introduced Stewart with a quote from Lee Trevino: “Payne Stewart is a player with no weakness.”

Trevino, who won six majors during his career, was a fan of Stewart almost from the start.  In 1982, Stewart’s third year as a professional, he entered the Atlanta Classic and got paired with Trevino, while wearing lavender knickers and a Hogan-style cap. Stewart said he caught all kinds of grief that day from Trevino, but he earned Trevino’s respect with his play. Both cap and knickers would become Stewart trademarks for the remainder of his life.

Knickers had not been seen on the PGA Tour since the era of Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret and Gene Sarazen. Any Tour player confident enough to wear the same cap as Hogan better have thick skin or a whole lot of game. Stewart had both.

It was a good thing. The spotlight was on him and proved a little too bright at first—particularly in Texas.

At the 1984 Colonial NIT in Fort Worth, Stewart bogeyed the 72nd hole, then lost in a playoff to Peter Jacobsen.

At the 1985 Houston Open, a final-hole birdie would have tied Stewart with Raymond Floyd. Instead Stewart plunked one into the water hazard and made double.

Two weeks later Stewart had the Byron Nelson Classic all but locked up, with a three stroke lead and one hole left to play. After watching Bob Eastwood make birdie in the group ahead, Stewart’s next three shots found sand traps—-the third one resulting from a skulled shot over the green—from where he made double bogey. Stewart then proceeded to double bogey the first playoff hole and his Lone Star state trifecta meltdown was complete.

Following the playoff, a grim-faced Stewart declined a cart ride back to the clubhouse, where television crews wanted to interview him. Instead he slowly walked back with his wife Tracey, who was pregnant with their first child, daughter Chelsea. By some it was seen as a snub to Nelson and his tournament. Next day newspapers had a field day with Stewart, who wore SMU’s colors and had thousands of supporters in the gallery.

The Dallas Morning News wrote: “For once the peacock was an ostrich, briefly burying his own head.”

Stewart’s seeming inability to finish was well-documented that week. Not so well-reported was that his father—the man who introduced him to the game—had died two months earlier after a year-long battle with bone cancer. For the next decade Stewart’s public relationship with the media was contentious. He was labeled surly, petulant and arrogant.

However in 1997 Stewart broke a four-year victory drought and made PGA Tour history, donating the entire $100,000 winner’s check from the Bay Hill Classic to the Circle of Care Home in Almonte Springs, Florida, a support facility for parents of cancer patients, in memory of his father.

With two U.S. Open championships in the decade to go with his PGA Championship title from 1989, and as a member of the winning 1999 US Ryder Cup team at Brookline, by the time he addressed the clubmakers in Austin, Stewart had made his peace with the media.

And so, one month after the Ryder Cup, with nine days left in his life, Stewart—as handsome as a groom—arrived at the Renaissance an hour before dinner and circulated during the cocktail hour like the most popular guy at a class reunion. He laughed boisterously, told stories, signed autographs and seemingly posed for photos with each of the 150 guests. During a men’s room break he announced from a stall to no one in particular, “This light beer goes through me like water through a duck!” Cracked everybody up.

Once he took the rostrum he held rapt an audience of American and international clubmakers for almost an hour, sashaying across a litany of topics and audience questions, ranging from being a parent (“taxicab service”) to Colin Montgomerie and coaching legends to a ‘what-if’ about the improbable Sunday comeback by the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

“Obviously the matches were over after Justin (Leonard) sank his putt and it took all the air out of my balloon,” Stewart recalled, his match with Montgomerie tied after 16 holes. Stewart said he believed he would have won if necessary and clinched the competition for the U.S. even if Leonard had missed. But even in defeat, Montgomerie made headlines, complaining that the Americans started their victory celebration too early, with family members prematurely running onto the green after Leonard’s putt. Montgomerie may have had a point but Stewart was having none of it.

“Why is it even in victory we have to defer to the Europeans?” Payne asked his audience. “When the U.S. loses our players forget about it the next day and move on. When Europe loses, these controversies seem to linger forever.”

When asked whether the U.S. team had an MVP, Stewart replied with six words: “Ben Crenshaw (U.S. captain). He never gave up.”

A resident of Orlando, Stewart visited Austin occasionally to see his teacher, Chuck Cook. But he hadn’t played in Austin for years. He said his last competitive round in the city was the 1979 Morris Williams Intercollegiate, playing for Coach Earl Stewart Jr (no relation) and SMU.

“Funny,” Stewart recalled, “I won the tournament but what I remember most was Hannon (UT coach George Hannon), and what he meant to golf. Even then you thought of him with Dave Williams (Houston), Mike Holder (OSU) and Earl Stewart Jr as coaching legends.” Later that spring Stewart won medalist for the Southwest Conference Championship, outdueling Houston’s Fred Couples.

Stewart seemingly could have gone on indefinitely about most anything golf related. But after 45 minutes or so, he paused for a moment and took a deep breath. His eyes welled up and his remarks suddenly shifted from golf to his family, starting with his parents.

“I had great parents,” he recalled. “My mom drove me to the golf course every day and my dad had a passion for competition. He stressed to me so many times—’Son, you don’t have to like not winning, but you always conduct yourself as a gentleman.’”

Stewart said he believed it was fate that he failed to get his tour card in 1979, requiring him to play on the Asian Tour, where he met his wife, Tracey Ferguson, the sister of an Australian golf pro.

“Tracey’s the reason for my success,” he said. “When I got complacent she would say, ‘All you care about is money.’ What about the winning?’”

Then he talked about his children, bragging on both Chelsea, and his 10-year old son, Aaron. Aaron, he explained, had recently informed the family that he had decided “to take a year off from sports”, so he could concentrate on skateboarding and surfing.

“Aaron said he would teach me how to surf,” chuckled Payne, eyes glistening, trying not to choke up. “Shoot, I didn’t eve see an ocean until I was seventeen!”

Stewart closed his remarks beseeching parents and children to enjoy golf and other sports, but not be consumed by them.

After a few more questions, he lingered at the microphone a moment longer, making sure he had answered everyone who had a question. And then he sat back down at the head table, a few feet from where we were seated, next to Golfsmith’s Frank Paul.

There were still a couple other speakers who would talk about clubmaking and the specific line of clubs Stewart would be playing.

But Payne said his good-byes to his hosts, shook a few hands and departed for the airport.

The hour was getting late.

He had a flight to catch, one more time.

Back home to Orlando.

Note: On October 25, 1999, a month after the American team rallied to win the Ryder Cup and four months after his U.S. Open victory, Stewart was killed in the crash of a Learjet flying from his home in Orlando, Florida, to Texas for the year-ending tournament, The Tour Championship, held at Champions Golf Club in HoustonNational Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators concluded that the aircraft failed to pressurize and that all on board were incapacitated due to hypoxia as the aircraft passed to the west of Gainesville, Florida. The aircraft continued flying on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed into a field near Mina, South Dakota.[32][33]

At the time of his death, Stewart had won $12,673,193 in career earnings. He won over $2 million during the 1999 season, and finished seventh on the year’s money list.

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