Remembering Payne Stewart

The impossibly unique Payne Stewart.

The impossibly unique Payne Stewart.

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.


11 thoughts on “Remembering Payne Stewart

  1. Ten years, wow. Very fitting to begin the week with a Payne tribute. The 1999 Open at Pinehurst was definitely one of the best Opens I can remember watching. Looking back on the leaderboard, it’s obvious why:
    1 Payne Stewart
    2 Phil Mickelson
    T3 Tiger Woods
    T3 Vijay Singh

    Then throw in high finishes by David Duval, Davis Love, Paul Azinger, Hal Sutton, Darren Clarke, and the ever-present Magg Jeffert.

  2. Reminds me of an ancedote that Paul Goydos once told about going to the range for the first time at a PGA Tour event. He went and set up next to some guy in blue jeans and a baseball cap and hit a few warm up pitches or something like that. Then he noticed that the guy next to him was hitting absolute rockets with every club in the bag. Just monsterous, towering irons.

    So Goydos stopped hitting and started feeling depressed–if everyone on tour hit the ball like that there was no way he belonged. So he packed up his clubs and started to go back to the hotel or whatever. On his way off the range he snuck a peek at the guy’s golf bag, saw the name, and immediately felt better about himself because, as he put it more or less, “I already knew I couldn’t hit the ball like Payne Stewart.” *

    * Credit for this anecdote goes to a John Feinstein book I think.

  3. Thats a good story. I know he always said that one of the benefits of wearing the knickers was that no one ever recognized him was he wasn’t in them…

    Great iron player without a doubt. Great swing.

  4. I loved watching Payne Stewart, an unfortunate loss and a really awful accident. Pretty sure he was on track to captain a Ryder Cup. I’d wager that his plus-fours brought attention to the game from people whom otherwise would have never been interested in golf.

  5. A little late getting aboard but just saw this site. I was a volunteer marshal at the 1989 PGA Championship at Long Grove. I was on the 18th green when Payne made that great comeback to win by one stroke over Bean, Reid, and Curtis Strange. In the mass of people around the green congratulating Payne, I escorted his wife and child away to ‘safety’ after he had hugged his family.

  6. He was a great person, I remember being in a staff meeting when I heard the news that he had died in the plane crash. I was physically ill. He was a great golfer but a better person. I still miss him.

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