Has it really been ten years? Ten years since the amazing finish at Pinehurst, since the historic Ryder Cup comeback, and since the tragic plane accident that took Payne Stewart’s life? It’s hard for me to comprehend that much time has passed. I can easily transport myself back to my college dorm where I heard the news. The realization that Stewart was gone was tough to take, especially since the previous months had contained some of the ultimate highs for Payne fans. Payne was always my favorite player, the golfer who I first remember watching, and it seems fitting to remember during U.S. Open week, a tournament he both loved and had great success in.
Before I was aware of Stewart he had a bad reputation on Tour. Eventually marriage and a spiritual awakening would considerably soften Stewart and he became extremely popular, but as young player he had a temper, was arrogant, and couldn’t win the big one. I’m sure it’s hard to believe that the guy in the knickers and gold toed wingtips was a little cocky. He won his first major in 1989, the PGA at Kemper Lakes, and then two years later I became a Stewart fan for life watching the 1991 U.S. Open at Hazeltine.
It’s a strange coincidence that this Open was also one of Fred Couples’ rare good showings in the event, but my attention that week was locked on Payne. He trailed coming down the stretch on Sunday, but he finished tied with Scott Simpson, which set up the 18-hole playoff Monday and had me glued to the television. In my mind there was no way Stewart could lose to Scott Simpson. Who was this guy? The announcers lauded his U.S. Open record, spoke of his win in 1987 at Olympic, but he didn’t look like a guy that could beat Payne. Through 15 holes Simpson had built a two shot lead.
Sixteen is Hazeltine’s great equalizer. Not a long par four, but one of the most demanding drives in golf. Water short, and left off the tee. More water around the green requires a precise approach shot. While Simpson struggled to a bogey, Payne hit two solid shots and rolled in a lengthy birdie putt to tie the playoff. On the next hole, Simpson’s tee shot found a pond left of the green, and Stewart was in control for good.
After ’91 Payne would be a constant presence in the Open. No one has lead after more rounds than Payne, and he had a chance to win at least 5 U.S. Opens. Twice he was foiled by Lee Janzen, most painfully back at Olympic in 1998. Even with his close calls and missed opportunities I would call Payne the best U.S. Open player of his generation. Janzen and Strange also won twice, but Stewart had the complete body of work. He was always around. No matter what shape his game was in coming into the event it wasn’t surprising to see Payne grind his way to the top of the board.
Stewart had flair for the moment, was a great putter, was fiercly patriotic, and all these attributes likely contributed to his Open successes. It is a tragedy that Payne did not finish his Open career on his terms, but going out a winner seems fitting. I would have liked to have seen him take a few more runs at the title, captain a Ryder Cup team, and continue to elevate the shoe game on Tour, but the excitement of the weekend ten years ago will be with me forever. It was a great week, and I’ll be hoping for a tenth of the drama starting Thursday at Bethpage.