Memories of Stewart come flooding back

By Brandel ChambleeJune 7, 2014, 4:45 am

After the second round of the 1999 National Car Rental Golf Classic I was sitting in front of my locker talking to John Cook about the Senior Tour, as the Champions Tour was known then, when Payne Stewart walked in. John and I were debating whether the old man’s tour would be around for us to play. John had just turned 42 and I was 37. We agreed the tour seemed to have run its course and we thought we were more likely to be pensioners than players after age 50.

Just four months removed from winning the U.S. Open, Payne took a seat beside me. After listening for a while he raised a finger and said, “Whatz you guys fails to understand ..." We all burst out laughing. Payne was known to carry around a set of fake teeth, all stained and askew, and pop them in when least expected. He would often affect some weird accent to add to the humor.

Photos: 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2

Payne and I both missed the cut, leaving us to the routine of departing an event: grab a bag for unused golf balls and gloves, get your shoes, tip the locker-room attendant and leave the scene of the crime, so to speak. John’s questions stalled my exit, but Payne seemed in no hurry to leave, as if he were chewing on something besides those teeth.

Earlier in the week Payne had drawn the ire of many with an over-the-top impersonation of a Chinese person speaking English. It was in response to a quip by Peter Alliss that the Americans (during the Ryder Cup) were so different from the Brits, they might as well be Chinese.

Squinting and sticking out his teeth, Stewart told ESPN's Mark McCumber, "I just want Peter Alliss to know that all of us American golfers on the Ryder Cup team, we are Chinese, too. Thank you very much.” Stewart later apologized, saying there was no intent to offend anyone but Alliss.

His impromptu parody ignited a media firestorm. When some called him a racist, I sensed he was hurting, because that was so far from who he was.

I've carried these memories of Payne Stewart for nearly 15 years, the amount of time that has passed since he was one of six people killed in the 1999 crash of a private plane. Now, with the U.S. Open about to be played at Pinehurst, where he won the last of his three majors in June 1999, the memories of Stewart have become increasingly vivid.

A ROUND OF GOLF reveals many things about a man, but tournament golf is an inkblot test. You want to know who a man is? Watch him lose. Better yet, watch him win.

I was paired with Stewart for the final 36 holes of the only event I would win on Tour, the 1998 Greater Vancouver Open. Payne had won plenty by professional golf standards - nine wins to that point in his career, including two majors and a near-miss on a third at the U.S. Open a few months before - but not enough for his critics, who called him “Avis” for his propensity for coming in second.

I’m sure the moniker bothered him but he was every bit the star - as if he'd won 50 times. With his plus-fours and tam o'shanter cap, nobody was more recognizable in golf. And when he swung the club, all of us were transported to a more elegant decade, perhaps the 1920s. In an age where many swings looked like they were built in a lab, he was Roy Hobbs. That weekend I was the journeyman and he was the giant and the Vancouver crowd wanted him to win.

Several times over those two days he apologized for the crowd’s partisanship. I understood their favoritism - a win by him would elevate the status of the event - but I appreciated his consideration.


AT THE 1999 U.S. Open I played well before the leaders on Sunday. On the 16th hole I had a putt of about 20 feet for par. In between the hole and my ball was a ridge which I had to putt over at an angle. The ball would break more or less, depending on which angle I took. I missed by a mile and I remember thinking that no one could make that putt.

A few hours later Payne had the same putt. He smacked his gum as he looked at the line the way a jeweler looks at a diamond. Playing commentator, I called the read impossible. Seconds later I turned back into a fan, blown away by Stewart's talent. I remember his reaction to the holed putt more than the putt itself. His eyes never blinked as he chomped that gum and walked off the green completely absorbed in what he needed to do next, while the rest of the world was agog at what he had just done.

What he did next made for some of the most memorable moments in the history of golf. Forgotten so often by those who win in a rush is that someone else just lost. A statue commemorates the pose Payne struck after holing the winning putt, but no less indelible is the image of him grabbing Phil Mickelson by the face and reminding him of the larger picture of impending parenthood.

That kind of empathy at a moment like that is as rare as the moment itself.

A FEW MONTHS after that U.S. Open, on Tuesday of the 1999 National Car Rental Golf Classic, Payne and I were in the fitness trailer with a few others. As I was leaving, I grabbed two waist-high exercise balls and rolled them in front of me as I walked out the door. “This was you walking off the 16th green at Pinehurst,” I said. He roared.

The Disney event ended on Sunday, Oct. 24, with Tiger Woods collecting his 13th Tour win. On Monday I flew from Orlando to Scottsdale and came home to a ringing phone with the tragic news. I immediately thought of Payne’s family and I was sick with grief. Every flight I have ever boarded, commercial or private, I have this fleeting macabre moment where I think about my family and wonder what if ... Did I tell them I love them? Did I look them in the eye so they knew? Did I hug them? What would my children’s lives be like without a father? Fleeting, horrific thoughts, irrational in the face of the odds, became a reality for the Stewarts that day.

A life cut short is something I know far too much about, having lost a son before I got to know him, before I got to see who he would become. I’ve often wondered if the pain of his loss would be assuaged in any way if I had gotten to see him grow up to be happy and to make others happy ... the way Payne did. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that Payne left behind a family that loves him, friends that miss him and a game that is better off because of him.

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Copycat: Honda's 17th teeters on edge of good taste

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 12:37 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The Honda Classic won’t pack as many fans around its party hole this week as the Phoenix Open does, but there is something more intensely intimate about PGA National’s stadium setup.

Players feel like the spectators in the bleachers at the tee box at Honda’s 17th hole are right on top of them.

“If the wind’s wrong at the 17th tee, you can get a vodka cranberry splashed on you,” Graeme McDowell cracked. “They are that close.”

Plus, the 17th at the Champion Course is a more difficult shot than the one players face at Scottsdale's 16th.

It’s a 162-yard tee shot at the Phoenix Open with no water in sight.

It’s a 190-yard tee shot at the Honda Classic, to a small, kidney-shaped green, with water guarding the front and right side of the green and a bunker strategically pinched into the back-center. Plus, it’s a shot that typically must be played through South Florida’s brisk winter winds.

“I’ve hit 3- and 4-irons in there,” McDowell said. “It’s a proper golf hole.”

It’s a shot that can decide who wins late on a Sunday, with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line.

Factor in the intensely intimate nature of that hole, with fans partaking in libations at the Gosling Bear Trap pavilion behind the 17th tee and the Cobra Puma Village behind the 17th green, and the degree of difficulty there makes it one of the most difficult par 3s on the PGA Tour. It ranked as the 21st most difficult par 3 on the PGA Tour last year with a 3.20 scoring average. Scottsdale's 16th ranked 160th at 2.98.

That’s a fairly large reason why pros teeing it up at the Honda Classic don’t want to see the Phoenix-like lunacy spill over here the way it threatened to last year.

That possibility concerns players increasingly agitated by the growing unruliness at tour events outside Phoenix. Rory McIlroy said the craziness that followed his pairing with Tiger Woods in Los Angeles last week left him wanting a “couple Advil.” Justin Thomas, also in that grouping, said it “got a little out of hand.”

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

So players will be on alert arriving at the Honda Classic’s 17th hole this week.

A year ago, Billy Horschel complained to PGA Tour officials about the heckling Sergio Garcia and other players received there.

Horschel told last year that he worried the Honda Classic might lose some of its appeal to players if unruly fan behavior grew worse at the party hole, but he said beefed up security helped on the weekend. Horschel is back this year, and so is Garcia, good signs for Honda as it walks the fine line between promoting a good party and a good golf tournament.

“I embrace any good sporting atmosphere as long as it stays respectful,” Ian Poulter said. “At times, the line has been crossed out here on Tour. People just need to be sensible. I am not cool with being abused.

“Whenever you mix alcohol with a group of fans all day, then Dutch courage kicks in at some stage.”

Bottom line, Poulter likes the extra excitement fans can create, not the insults some can hurl.

“I am all up for loud crowds,” he said. “A bit of jeering and fun is great, but just keep it respectful. It’s a shame it goes over the line sometimes. It needs to be managed.”

Honda Classic executive director Ken Kennerly oversees that tough job. In 12 years leading the event, he has built the tournament into something special. The attendance has boomed from an estimated 65,000 his first year at the helm to more than 200,000 last year.

With Tiger Woods committed to play this year, Kennerly is hopeful the tournament sets an attendance record. The arrival of Woods, however, heightens the challenges.

Woods is going off with the late pairings on Friday, meaning he will arrive at Honda’s party hole late in the day, when the party’s fully percolating.

Kennerly is expecting 17,000 fans to pack that stadium-like atmosphere on the event’s busiest days.

Kennerly is also expecting the best from South Florida fans.

“We have a zero tolerance policy,” Kennerly said. “We have more police officers there, security and more marshals.

“We don’t want to be nasty and throw people out, but we want them to be respectful to players. We also want it to continue to be a fun place for people to hang out, because we aren’t getting 200,000 people here just to watch golf.”

Kennerly said unruly fans will be ejected.

“But we think people will be respectful, and I expect when Tiger and the superstars come through there, they aren’t going to have an issue,” Kennerly said.

McDowell believes Kennerly has the right balance working, and he expects to see that again this week.

“They’ve really taken this event up a couple notches the last five or 10 years with the job they’ve done, especially with what they’ve done at the 16th and 17th holes,” McDowell said. “I’ve been here a lot, and I don’t think it’s gotten to the Phoenix level yet.”

The real test of that may come Friday when Woods makes his way through there at the end of the day.

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Door officially open for Woods to be playing vice captain

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 20, 2018, 11:50 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Thirteen months ago, when Jim Furyk was named the 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, one of the biggest questions was what would happen if Furyk were to play his way onto his own team.

It wasn’t that unrealistic. 

At the time, Furyk was 46 and coming off a season in which he tied for second at the U.S. Open and shot 58 in a PGA Tour event. If anything, accepting the Ryder Cup captaincy seemed premature.

And now?

Now, he’s slowly recovering from shoulder surgery that knocked him out of action for six months. He’s ranked 230th in the world. He’s planning to play an 18-event schedule, on past champion status, mostly to be visible and available to prospective team members.

A playing captain? Furyk chuckled at the thought.

“Wow,” he said here at PGA of America headquarters, “that would be crazy-difficult.”

That’s important to remember when assessing Tiger Woods’ chances of becoming a playing vice captain.

On Tuesday, Woods was named an assistant for the matches at Le Golf National, signing up for months of group texts and a week in which he'd sport an earpiece, scribble potential pairings on a sheet of paper and fetch anything Team USA needs.

It’s become an increasingly familiar role for Woods, except this appointment isn’t anything like his vice captaincy at Hazeltine in 2016 or last year’s Presidents Cup.

Unlike the past few years, when his competitive future was in doubt because of debilitating back pain, there’s at least a chance now that Woods can qualify for the team on his own, or deserve consideration as a captain’s pick. 

There’s a long way to go, of course. He’s 104th in the points standings. He’s made only two official starts since August 2015. His driving needs a lot of work. He hasn’t threatened serious contention, and he might not for a while. But, again: Come September, it’s possible.

And so here was Woods’ taped message Tuesday: “My goal is to make the team, but whatever happens over the course of this season, I will continue to do whatever I can to help us keep the cup.”

That follows what Woods told reporters last week at Riviera, when he expressed a desire to be a playing vice captain.

“Why can’t I have both?” he said. “I like both.”

Furyk, eventually, will have five assistants in Paris, and he could have waited to see how Woods fared this year before assigning him an official role.

He opted against that. Woods is too valuable of an asset.

“I want him on-board right now,” Furyk said.

Arnold Palmer was the last to serve as both player and captain for a Ryder Cup – in 1963. Nothing about the Ryder Cup bears any resemblance to those matches, other than there’s still a winner and a loser. There is more responsibility now. More planning. More strategy. More pressure.

For the past two team competitions, the Americans have split into four-man pods that practiced together under the supervision of one of the assistants. That assistant then relayed any pertinent information to the captain, who made the final decision.

The assistants are relied upon even more once the matches begin. Furyk will need to be on the first tee for at least the first hour of the matches, welcoming all of the participants and doing interviews for the event’s many TV partners, and he needs an assistant with each of the matches out on the course. They’re the captain’s eyes and ears.

Furyk would need to weigh whether Woods’ potential impact as a vice captain – by all accounts he’s the best Xs-and-Os specialist – is worth more than the few points he could earn on the course. Could he adequately handle both tasks? Would dividing his attention actually be detrimental to the team?

“That would be a bridge we cross when we got there,” Furyk said.

If Woods plays well enough, then it’s hard to imagine him being left off the roster, even with all of the attendant challenges of the dual role.

“It’s possible,” Furyk said, “but whether that’s the best thing for the team, we’ll see.”

It’s only February, and this comeback is still new. As Furyk himself knows, a lot can change over the course of a year.

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Furyk tabs Woods, Stricker as Ryder Cup vice captains

By Will GrayFebruary 20, 2018, 9:02 pm

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk has added Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker to his stable of vice captains to aid in his quest to win on foreign soil for the first time in 25 years.

Furyk made the announcement Tuesday in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., site of this week's Honda Classic. He had previously named Davis Love III as his first vice captain, with a fourth expected to be named before the biennial matches kick off in France this September.

The addition of Woods and Stricker means that the team room will have a familiar feel from two years ago, when Love was the U.S. captain and Furyk, Woods, Stricker and Tom Lehman served as assistants.

This will be the third time as vice captain for Stricker, who last year guided the U.S. to victory as Presidents Cup captain. After compiling a 3-7-1 individual record as a Ryder Cup player from 2008-12, Stricker served as an assistant to Tom Watson at Gleneagles in 2014 before donning an earpiece two years ago on Love's squad at Hazeltine.

"This is a great honor for me, and I am once again thrilled to be a vice captain,” Stricker said in a statement. “We plan to keep the momentum and the spirit of Hazeltine alive and channel it to our advantage in Paris."

Woods will make his second appearance as a vice captain, having served in 2016 and also on Stricker's Presidents Cup team last year. Woods played on seven Ryder Cup teams from 1997-2012, and last week at the Genesis Open he told reporters he would be open to a dual role as both an assistant and a playing member this fall.

"I am thrilled to once again serve as a Ryder Cup vice captain and I thank Jim for his confidence, friendship and support," Woods said in a statement. "My goal is to make the team, but whatever happens over the course of this season, I will continue to do what I can to help us keep the cup."

The Ryder Cup will be held Sept. 28-30 at Le Golf National in Paris. The U.S. has not won in Europe since 1993 at The Belfry in England.

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Watch: Guy wins $75K boat, $25K cash with 120-foot putt

By Grill Room TeamFebruary 20, 2018, 8:15 pm

Making a 120-foot putt in front of a crowd of screaming people would be an award in and of itself for most golfers out there, but one lucky Minnesota man recently got a little something extra for his effort.

The Minnesota Golf Show at the Minneapolis Convention Center has held a $100,000 putting contest for 28 years, and on Sunday, Paul Shadle, a 49-year-old pilot from Rosemount, Minnesota, became the first person ever to sink the putt, winning a pontoon boat valued at $75,000 and $25,000 cash in the process.

But that's not the whole story. Shadle, who describes himself as a "weekend golfer," made separate 100-foot and 50-foot putts to qualify for an attempt at the $100K grand prize – in case you were wondering how it's possible no one had ever made the putt before.

"Closed my eyes and hoped for the best," Shadle said of the attempt(s).

Hard to argue with the result.