Players Hold Strong Memories of Stewart
Monday marked the five-year anniversary of the plane crash that killed Stewart and five others. Disney was the last tournament he played.
Three days after he missed the cut by one shot, Stewart boarded a private plane for a meeting on a golf course project in Dallas and then to play the Tour Championship in Houston. The plane lost cabin pressure and flew uncontrolled across the country until it ran out of fuel and plunged into a field in South Dakota.
Azinger and Stewart were partners for the first two pro-am rounds at Disney that year. Even though he shot 71-71, Stewart managed to make headlines by speaking in a mock Chinese accent on ESPN during a rain delay to retaliate for comments British golf analyst Peter Alliss had made about the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
'I watched him do it,' Azinger said, smiling and shaking his head. 'He comes over to me and says, 'Hey, that was pretty funny, huh?' I told him, 'Congratulations, Payne. You just insulted about 3 billion people.''
Azinger remembers the loose lips, the pranks, the jabs. He remembers their favorite fishing spot behind the fifth hole on the Magnolia course, where they once came across a rattlesnake on a dirt path and hit 1-irons at it. Ask him about the Ryder Cup, and Azinger talks about the music Stewart brought: 'Born in the USA' blared down the hallways of the hotel.
Tom Lehman remembers, too.
He delivered a powerful tribute to Stewart during a chilling ceremony before the start of the '99 Tour Championship, where an eerie fog shrouded the first fairway as players sat in shock. Lehman tries to have dinner with Stewart's widow, Tracey, every time he comes to Orlando for Bay Hill or Disney.
'I think about Payne fairly frequently,' Lehman said. 'It could be anything ' highlights of a golf tournament, a guy in knickers, thinking about the Ryder Cup, coming to Orlando, getting on a private jet. You don't want to forget. I don't know if you want to dwell on what happened five years ago, but you don't want to forget.'
Anyone who goes in the locker room at Disney cannot forget Stewart.
Past champions have their own row of lockers. Stewart's locker has a glass door to show its contents ' a pair of red plus-fours on a hanger, a white shirt with his silhouette stitched in navy blue. A white tam-o'-shanter cap is on a hook above white shoes and a worn glove. A box of golf balls is on the top shelf.
One look at the balls ' a black box of Titleist Tour Prestige, a wound golf ball now obsolete ' was a reminder of how long ago it seems that the reigning U.S. Open champion died.
Even more startling was to see Stewart's son on the practice range early last week. Aaron is 15, a sophomore on the junior varsity golf team at Olympia High in Orlando.
'He's a big boy now,' Azinger said. 'He's got a nice swing ' a two-plane swing, just like his daddy.'
On Sunday, some volunteers wore a picture of Stewart around their necks, urging fans not to forget.
But there was another part of Disney that made Azinger think of his dear friend.
This usually is the time when the PGA of America interviews candidates for Ryder Cup captain. Among those under consideration are Azinger, Lehman, Mark O'Meara, Fred Couples, perhaps even Larry Nelson.
The Ryder Cup was not even mentioned last week. The PGA of America is huddled at headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, trying to figure out who should get the job.
'They're in a jam, because Payne Stewart would be the logical choice,' Azinger said. 'And now, they don't know what to do. He wanted to be the captain in Ireland. He had already looked that far out. Unfortunately, he isn't here.'
Azinger said he already has talked to PGA president M.G. Orender, but he doesn't want to be captain in 2006. He also said Tracey Stewart wanted to see Azinger as captain in Ireland, to take over for her husband.
'I'm just not quite ready to do it,' Azinger said.
Stewart epitomized the Ryder Cup. He was intense, patriotic, never lacking in sportsmanship. In his last match in 1999, Stewart conceded a birdie putt to Colin Montgomerie to spare the Scotsman from further heckling at Brookline.
He was a regular in Ireland before the British Open, endearing himself on the golf course and in pubs alike. Stewart would have been the logical choice for the '06 matches on the Emerald Isle.
He would have been the only choice.
'A no-brainer,' Lehman said.
Hal Sutton was walking down his hallway this summer when he saw a framed picture from the '99 Ryder Cup. There was Stewart in the middle of the celebration, spraying champagne from the balcony of The Country Club after a stunning U.S. comeback.
Sutton brought the picture to Oakland Hills and hung it in the team room.
'That picture showed passion. It showed that he cared,' Sutton said. 'I wanted to remember him in that way.'
Stewart left memories for everyone.
He also left the PGA of America without a simple choice for Ryder Cup captain.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile
Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.
The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from a trip to Augusta.
He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).
Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.
Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.
Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.
Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.
The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.
McIlroy gets back on track
There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:
He is well ahead of schedule.
Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.
“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”
To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”
And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.
After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out.
Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.
“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”
The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.
The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)
But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.
Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.
Everything in his life is lined up.
Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.
Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.
There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.
Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.
The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.
Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.
It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.
Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.
While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.