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.

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.

Love's hip surgery a success; eyes Florida swing return

By Rex HoggardNovember 22, 2017, 3:31 pm

Within hours of having hip replacement surgery on Tuesday Davis Love III was back doing what he does best – keeping busy.

“I’ve been up and walking, cheated in the night and stood up by the bed, but I’m cruising around my room,” he laughed early Wednesday from Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, Ala., where he underwent surgery to replace his left hip. “[Dr. James Flanagan, who performed the surgery] wants me up. They don’t want me sitting for more than an hour.”

Love, 53, planned to begin more intensive therapy and rehabilitation on Wednesday and is scheduled to be released from the hospital later this afternoon.

According to Love’s doctors, there were no complications during the surgery and his recovery time is estimated around three to four months.

Love, who was initially hesitant to have the surgery, said he can start putting almost immediately and should be able to start hitting wedges in a few weeks.

Dr. Tom Boers – a physical therapist at the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic in Columbus, Ga., who has treated Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Brad Faxon – will oversee Love’s recovery and ultimately decide when he’s ready to resume normal golf activity.

“He understands motion and gait and swing speeds that people really don’t understand. He’s had all of us in there studying us,” Love said. “So we’ll see him in a couple of weeks and slowly get into the swing part of it.”

Although Love said he plans to temper his expectations for this most recent recovery, his goal is to be ready to play by the Florida swing next March.