Payne, Pinehurst forever linked in memory
Posted June 10
The Bob Jones Award recognizes those who demonstrate the character, spirit and respect for the game of golf for which Jones was so well known. The USGA Tuesday bestowed this award, its highest honor, to the late Payne Stewart during a ceremony in Pinehurst.
Friends of Stewart and his family attended the tribute. Both the award and the setting seem fitting. For as Jones, who won the 1927 British Open as an amateur is often identified with St. Andrews (Jones also won nine USGA events), so Stewart will always be connected with Pinehurst. As I look back on Payne Stewart’s incredible U.S. Open Championship week in 1999, I see character, spirit, and respect for the game in abundance.
Disaster in the air
October 25, 1999. It’s one of those days I’ll always remember. It was my day off, and I was walking a golf course in Johnston County when my cell phone rang, somewhere around one o’clock. WRAL Sports Producer Tom Crichton told me Payne Stewart’s plane was missing, and could I come in to work? I explained that I was on a golf course without a golf cart, 15-20 minutes from my car, but that of course I would get there as soon as I could.
And all the way along the 30-mile trip back to Raleigh, I found myself reflecting on memories of Payne in Pinehurst, memories that were just four months old.
“The farmers need rain”
I thought first, believe it or not, of that initial day of U.S. Open practice in June of 1999. We almost missed Stewart. He was dressed in slacks, a golf shirt and a ball cap. We learned he only wore his special plus-four outfits during competition.
Stewart may have been out of uniform, but he was in fine form before our WRAL cameras. We talked about the weather forecast, which predicted substantial rain for Tuesday and Wednesday.
The best golfers do not want rain at a U.S. Open, because it softens the golf course and gives more players a chance. Pros like Tiger Woods and Stewart want conditions that are fast and firm, conditions that put a premium on par.
Prolonged dry weather had forced Raleigh and some other communities to impose some water restrictions. Stewart, somehow, seemed to know this, because he acknowledged that people around here need rain “and the farmers need rain.” How many golfers would empathize with the plight of farmers three days before the biggest golf tournament of the summer?
Having talked with a couple of dozen golfers during U.S. Open week in 1999, I can state categorically that the only other discussions of agriculture concerned the growing of grass – especially the growing of the Bermuda rough – on Pinehurst No. 2.
“You could play without any rough”
Stewart loved Pinehurst from the beginning. Here is his comment following that Monday practice round: “This is a gem. It’s beautiful. You could play out here and play without any rough.”
Maybe the USGA was listening, because now in 2014, the best golfers in the world will play No. 2 without rough.
Pinehurst No. 2 requires imagination
Stewart and the USGA understood the same thing about fabled No. 2. The challenge lies not in the tee shot, although a poor tee shot will be punished. The challenge on this Donald Ross classic course comes on the approach shot: Where do you land the ball in order to have a chance to get it to stop on the green? And if the ball rolls off the turtle-backed putting surface, then what?
Stewart loved the imagination Pinehurst No. 2 requires: “You know everybody’s going to think about shots differently,” he told me. “Some are going to think lob, some are going to think chip, and some are going to think putt. That’s what is so great about Pinehurst. “
As creative as Stewart was, he often found it difficult to focus. He had ADD (attention deficit disorder). Dr. Richard Coop, professor of Educational Psychology at the University of North Carolina, worked with Stewart on the mental side of the game (Coop also worked with U.S. Open champions Corey Pavin and Lee Janzen). Coop helped Stewart develop a pre-swing routine, common for most top players, but not to the freewheeling Stewart.
Rain did fall the night before the ’99 Open, saturating the course. And the soft conditions did allow about two dozen players to shoot in the 60s. Stewart, wearing gray knickers, posted a two-under-par 68, one shot out of the lead.
Toughest golf course in the world
But the course dried out Friday. Scores ballooned. Janzen, the ’98 Open champion, proclaimed Pinehurst No. 2 that day as the toughest golf course in the world.
Atop the leaderboard, only three players broke par. All three shot 69, and Stewart was one of the three.
He wore the black knickers and a white shirt during round two. Afterward, he spoke of his love for the U.S. Open: “It always meant so much to my father. It means a lot to me. I come into the U. S. Open, knowing anytime you make par, it’s going to be a good score.”
Bill Stewart, Payne’s father, was an accomplished amateur golfer, who qualified for the U.S. Open three times. He taught Payne, for a tournament of this importance, you fill out your full name on the application. And so he did: “William Payne Stewart.”
The younger Stewart also offered this insight after shooting his second sub-par round at Pinehurst: “Any U.S. Open calls for a lot of patience. You have to think about where you want your ball to finish.”
Saturday, moving day, produced the highest scores yet. Only Steve Stricker broke par with a 69, and that included a phenomenal eagle at the par-4 third, when he improbably holed a shot from a fairway bunker. Stewart played his worst round of the tournament, shooting 72. Never one to wear the same outfit two days in a row, Stewart donned light blue plus-fours for round three with a cream colored shirt.
After the round, Stewart discussed the woes of “the bogey train,” turning somewhat allegorical. “The saving grace of the round,” he said, “was the par putt I made on 11. It was about a 10-footer.” Stewart then talked about the bogey train: “I was on that train. It’s a hard train to get off. There’s not a lot of stops around here once you get on it.” He smiled as he said it.
Dr. Coop, the mental coach, probably had something to do with that smile. As he told my colleague Jeff Gravley in a recent interview, he tried to get Payne to see poor shots and bad luck as “OTEs:" Opportunities to excel. Stewart didn’t like having to play shots from the fairway out of sand divots. Few golfers do. Coop worked to get his pupil to look at misfortune as opportunity, not as a problem.
Incredibly, Coop said in that interview that Payne had not wanted to use his pre-swing routine during the first three rounds. But after shooting 72 on Saturday, he embraced those mechanics on championship Sunday.
“I love it. This is what I live for.”
I almost left out Stewart’s most compelling quote after round three. Watching it on videotape the other night gave me chills.
“I love it," he said. "This is what I live for.”
Stewart may never have been more engaged on the golf course than he was June 20, 1999.
The 'Payne Stewart par'
Stewart took on a big challenge Sunday from three players: Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
All three of those players are big hitters. Stewart is not.
Several times during the week, Stewart found himself unable or unwilling to hit a long iron or fairway wood to a distant green. He simply hit a lay-up shot and wedged in. More often than not, Stewart then made the putt for par.
Anytime I’m watching or playing golf, and someone saves par by getting up and down from well out on the fairway, I think of that as “a Payne Stewart par.”
Huge putt on 16
Singh had a putt from the fringe to tie for the lead on the 14th hole. He missed left by inches and never seriously threatened again.
Stewart, however, found himself trailing Mickelson, until he rolled in a birdie at No. 13.
The 16th hole nearly proved Payne’s undoing. 16 is normally a par five, but played as a monster par four in the ’99 Open. Stewart missed the green and followed with a pretty indifferent chip shot. His ball came to rest a good 25 feet from the hole, prompting Mickelson to think the tournament was turning his way.
The even-keel approach
Stewart could be fiery and emotional. Coop, believing that too much emotion spent before the end of the round can be costly, preached an “even-keel approach” to Stewart. WRAL anchor Gravley, who doubled as a photographer in the ’99 Open, captured a superb piece of video as Payne calmly rolled in that long par saving putt at 16, and then just as calmly, held up one finger, and kept on walking. Coop believes that putt and reaction may have been the key to Stewart’s entire round.
By contrast, Woods pulverized the 16th hole, hitting an iron to about eight feet off the hole. When he sank the birdie putt, Woods pumped his fist vigorously, inciting a roar that could be heard all over Pinehurst. He promptly bogeyed the next hole.
Stewart, meanwhile, hit one of his best shots of the day at the par-3 17th, knocking a medium iron stiff. He began the hole tied with Mickelson, but as they walked through the crowds to the final tee box, the man in the navy blue knickers led by one.
The 18th is also a long par four. And Stewart’s tee ball found the rough. So of course, he once again hit a lay-up shot, followed by a wedge to the green, 16 feet away. Mickelson hit the green in regulation, though his birdie putt would require a deft stroke from 25 feet. A Mickelson make or a Stewart miss would force an 18-hole playoff on Monday.
My view of the proceedings was blocked by the crowds, but I could tell by the reaction that Mickelson’s putt had missed. Then, as Stewart visualized a putting line for the U.S. Open trophy, I heard a spectator say that no one had made this putt all day. What’s more, no player in the 104-year history of the U.S. Open had made a putt this long to win.
The pandemonium that erupted among the spectators told me there would be no playoff. And later, as I was reviewing the videotape to write my story, I saw Payne Stewart unleash all the emotion he had so adroitly bottled up back at 16 and 17.
Then I saw something even more remarkable. He consoled Phil Mickelson, putting both hands on his face, and telling him, "Phil, you’re going to be a father. That’s the greatest thing.” Phil’s first child, daughter Amy, was born the next day.
The plane crash
When I first received the call about Stewart’s missing plane that day in October four months later, I clung to hope that somehow he would turn up. But by the time I arrived at the station, it was clear something had gone terribly wrong with small plane on which he rode.
For me, trying to tell the story of Stewart’s impact on golf in North Carolina that dark day in the autumn of ’99, was pretty emotional.
It was especially moving when Johnny Cake, the former pro at UNC’s Finley Golf Course, told the story of how Stewart honored a commitment to play in a four-man exhibition early the morning after the Open – at the Mill Creek Golf Course in Mebane. The event was held to raise money for UNC’s Lineberger Cancer Center. Stewart, who lost his father Bill to cancer in 1985, played all this extra golf on no sleep.
I was reminded of Stewart’s final example of great sportsmanship and the human spirit, re-reading John Feinstein’s book “The Majors.”
In the 1999 Ryder Cup, after Justin Leonard’s amazing 45-foot putt gave the U. S. team a stirring come from behind win, Stewart sacrificed his personal match with Colin Montgomerie. Stewart, who perhaps could have won had the players putted, and certainly would have fared no worse than a halved match, conceded Montgomerie’s lengthy putt, giving the embattled British star a small measure of Ryder Cup glory.
Payne Stewart was no ordinary champion. We in North Carolina were witness to the man in all of his splendor.