Payne Stewarts legacy lives on in son Aaron

By Rex HoggardOctober 22, 2009, 10:03 pm

It was a seminal moment, like 9/11 or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and it is burned into the collective consciousness by circumstance and shock.

The average cable viewer on Oct. 25, 1999, probably had little idea who Payne Stewart was or what the charismatic Missourian had accomplished on golfs grandest stages, yet a decade later the image of Learjet N47BAs ghostly journey across Americas heartland is still vivid.

I was buying a card for my wife, recalls fellow touring pro and friend Larry Rinker, the emotions flooding back with HD clarity. Someone called me and I just remember standing in the store thinking, I cant do this.

Aaron Stewart
Aaron Stewart

The eerie facts are all too familiar.

Stewart, his agent Robert Farley, Van Ardan and Bruce Borland, a golf course architect who was working with Stewart, took off from Orlando International Airport bound for Dallas on the morning of Oct. 25. Stewart was consulting with officials at Southern Methodist University, his alma mater, on a golf course and from there he planned to fly to Houston for the Tour Championship.

At 9:27 a.m. (ET), officials recorded the last communication from the pilots of N47BA. Less than 6 minutes later a request by air traffic controllers for the pilots to change frequencies went unanswered.

For nearly an hour-and-half Stewarts plane porpoised through the sky, gently climbing until it reached the engines operational ceiling at which time the autopilot would ease the plane back to an acceptable altitude. The plane ran out of fuel over South Dakota and crashed into a field near Mina, a town about 10 miles west of Aberdeen.

The National Transportation and Safety Boards official report of the accident concluded a sudden loss of cabin pressure overwhelmed the passengers and crew and all on board died of hypoxia.

Less than a month removed from his signature team victory at the Ryder Cup and less than five months removed from his defining individual triumph at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, Stewarts legacy ended as a stunned nation watched.

Everyone, that is, except for a towheaded 10-year-old.

Aaron Stewart, Paynes son and the youngest of two children, vaguely remembers the day his mother, Tracey, told him his father was gone. The day family friend Jon Brendle took him on his lap and promised to tell him every story about his father. But thats not where Aarons mind races a decade later when he is asked to remember Payne.

Now a square-shouldered young man with his own mop of blond hair and a devilish sense of humor, Aaron Stewart remembers the day Payne outdueled Phil Mickelson at Pinehurst. The chills he got when his father holed the winning putt on the 72nd hole, the pride he felt.

Paul Azinger and Aaron Stewart
Paul Azinger and Aaron Stewart at the 2008 Father/Son Challenge. (Getty Images)

I watched the whole round, in front of the TV. It was a rainy day (in Florida), like at Pinehurst, said Aaron Stewart, who didnt play golf at the time. I didnt know that it was as big a deal as it really was. That is what I remember the best.

Just over Aaron Stewarts left shoulder in the clubhouse at Sugarloaf Mountain Golf Club near Orlando, Fla., as recounts that rainy June day is a picture of Payne celebrating with the U.S. Ryder Cup team at Brookline. Aaron vaguely remembers Americas comeback, much like he remembers his fathers final fateful flight, but its Pinehurst that resonates.

We went to Pinehurst a few years ago. I made that putt (on the 18th hole). It took me a couple of tries, but I did it, recalls Aaron Stewart as a smile inches across his boyish face.

There is a familiarity to Aaron Stewarts swing, a distant reminder of his fathers graceful action but somehow modernized by motion and a game that has left lazy behind.

Its definitely two different swings, said Aaron Stewart, who started playing golf shortly after his father died and receives instruction from Paynes former swing coach, Chuck Cook. We look at my dads swings on video, I look at that and where I am, its pretty different.

Even 10 years later, Paynes shadow is impossible for Aaron Stewart to avoid and, if his actions are any indication, he has neither the inclination nor the ability to avoid his fathers legacy.

Aaron Stewart could have played college golf at a dozen schools, but he picked SMU, he picked Cook, he picked golf. At school there is a statue of Payne in the Hall of Distinguished Alum, its much like the statue of Payne officials put up at Pinehurst or the one at Waterville Golf Club in Ireland.

This one, however, is just upstairs from the workout room the SMU golf team uses. Its not there to remind Aaron Stewart what he has to live up to so much as it is an example of how he should live his life, much like the pictures he has of his father in his room at school.

Aaron Stewart has another memory of his father. Its a snapshot of a church filled with 5,000 of his fathers friends and family. A eulogy delivered in signature tam oshanter cap and plus fours by Paul Azinger. A line of Tour players waiting to embrace he, his sister and mother.

Lerner: Payne Stewart: More than a champion

It was a tough day, but it was nice to hear all the nice stories, Aaron said of the funeral service. It was nice to see how many people he influenced. It was cool to see.

In his eulogy, Azinger spoke for an entire generation: To try to accept the magnitude of this tragedy is the hardest thing I've ever had to do.

A decade removed from the tragic happenings of Oct. 25, 1999, the 10-year-old who seemed oblivious to it all has figured out the secret. The truth is, Aaron Stewart has learned that the best way to accept the loss is to never stop thinking about his father.

Every day, Aaron Stewart said. My mom and my sister and I think about him every day.

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”