Remembering Payne and the Pine Crest Inn

By Jason SobelJune 9, 2014, 12:20 pm

Fifteen years ago, Payne Stewart’s road to a momentous U.S. Open victory at Pinehurst No. 2 took a familiar detour through one of his favorite old haunts. Sure, the memories of those who were in attendance are a bit hazy (it was definitely the Sunday before the tournament – or maybe Monday) and their minds are a little stumped after so much time (he was either alone or with others), but they’re positive he spent an eventful evening at the nearby Pine Crest Inn before raising the trophy later that week.

Just four blocks from the entrance to the U.S. Open venue, the Pine Crest Inn was built in 1913. It was owned by legendary course designer Donald Ross until his death in 1948; since 1961, it’s been owned by the Barrett family. The business houses more than 7,500 guests per year, serves 15,000 meals and pours 75,000 drinks – although with the tournament back in town this week, those numbers might need to be inflated.

Stewart was no stranger to the place when he walked in that June evening. He’d once lived there for an entire summer while playing the mini-tour circuit after failing to earn his PGA Tour card. He was good friends with the entire Barrett family, especially Peter, who still serves as co-owner and general manager.

“He was always just a fun-loving guy,” Peter says at the recollection of so many good times shared at the Pine Crest.

On this particular occasion, Stewart came in to have a meal in the Crystal Room. Whatever he ordered for dinner has long since been forgotten, but he undoubtedly chased it with his favorite dessert.

“Payne especially loved their banana cream pie,” remembers his wife, Tracey.

At one point during the evening, he walked toward the first-floor men’s bathroom located underneath the stairs, ducking his 6-foot-1 frame just a bit to squeeze inside. When he exited, Stewart exhibited mock indignation over the fact that his signature, which once adorned the bathroom’s wall, had been painted over during a renovation.

And so he retreated to the front desk and asked to make his own renovation.

“I went behind the counter,” recalls Allison Beale, a teenager at the time who worked at the Pine Crest during summer months, “and just grabbed him one of those massive permanent markers.”

Using that marker, Stewart signed his name once again, in the very visible space right above the doorway.

“There was nothing else up there,” says Andy Hofmann, who has worked there for 33 years. “He signed it big, because he wanted people to see it.”

Payne Stewart autograph

Payne Stewart's autograph, immortalized at the Pine Crest Inn

As it turns out, that wasn’t the only indelible imprint Stewart left that day.

Patrick Barrett was 9 years old at the time. Born into a family that ran the most popular establishment in one of golf’s premier hotbeds, he’d been pushed toward the game, but to that point had resisted its allure.

Dining with his grandfather, Bob, that night, Patrick started to come around – thanks to Stewart.

“He had his back to us when we were eating; I just knew he was a golfer,” Patrick remembers. “Halfway through dinner, Payne gets up and walks over. Grandpa says, ‘I want you to meet my grandson.’ He lit up and smiled and shook my hand. I didn’t really know what to do, but he made a big old fuss over me.”

“It was just the fact that he talked to him,” insists Hofmann, who is also Patrick’s mother. “He didn’t talk over him; he talked directly to him. Called him by his name.”

Before their friendly chat ended, the pro signed a napkin for the kid: “Dear Patrick, Keep swinging! – Payne Stewart.” He still has it – somewhere. “I’ve been looking for that thing for 15 years,” Patrick says.

When the U.S. Open started a few days later, the 9-year-old followed his new friend everywhere. Armed with 35 cents in each of the four pockets of his cargo shorts, Patrick would check in with his mother via payphone every few hours. By week’s end, after watching the man who’d spoken directly to him and smiled at him and signed the napkin for him win the tournament right down the street, he was hooked.

Patrick Barrett started playing golf soon thereafter. Within a few years, he became a high-level junior player. He competed for the team at the University of North Carolina and just this year turned professional – all while still waiting tables at the Pine Crest Inn.

When he walks into that first-floor men’s bathroom under the stairs, Patrick – and anyone else who looks over the door frame – will still see Stewart’s signature. The bathroom has again been renovated since that evening, receiving a fresh coat of black paint two Mondays ago. But the signature endures under a Plexiglas display, joining another one that remains in the lobby – part of the Pine Crest’s salute to one of its favorite sons.

“For two or three years after he died,” Hofmann says, “everyone who came in wanted to see his autograph.”

That will be the case once again this week, when Pinehurst No. 2 hosts the U.S. Open just four blocks away from the Pine Crest Inn. Countless people – from old friends to new fans – will walk into the venerable old building, asking to see Payne Stewart’s signature.

Plenty of them will stay for a meal. They might even enjoy the banana cream pie, too. After all, as the staff always tells their guests, that was Payne’s favorite.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

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.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

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.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

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.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

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.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

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.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

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.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.