Triumph to Tragedy

By Rex HoggardNovember 4, 2009, 11:55 pm

Project 99I was there when … time stood still, when a nondescript Learjet and an even more seemingly innocuous mechanical problem turned a mundane Monday into a day with infinite shelf life and consequences that still echo a decade later.

As a first-year assistant editor for Golfweek magazine’s nascent Web site Mondays were “cleanup” days following Sunday’s competitive climax. Money lists were updated, TV schedules for the coming week posted, busy work. But the images that flashed on the silent screen from CNN’s Atlanta studios just before 10 a.m. (ET) had an eerie familiarity to them even before the government and media had put Payne Stewart on the doomed Learjet 35.

Initially, N47BA – the only identifier on the Learjet’s rear wing – was a curiosity, a flight that departed Orlando International Airport at 9:19 a.m. with unknown crew and cargo that had fallen silent and was streaking out of the Heart of Dixie and into the American consciousness.

Payne Stewart
Fans memorialized Payne Stewart's parking spot at the 1999 Tour Championship. (Getty Images)
Among the early reports that were quickly floated and almost as quickly proven erroneous was the prospect that Tiger Woods, an Orlando-area resident and a regular private jet user, was aboard N47BA.

There were also suggestions that the military was considering shooting the Learjet out of the sky to assure it wouldn’t crash into a populated area. Although a military spokesman would later say that was never a consideration, an official Air Force log shows there were two F-16s “suited up” (armed) in Fargo, N.D., and “on immediate alert.”

Yet as the Learjet continued its ghostly and doomed journey – porpoising through the sky, fixed in a slight climb before peaking at 51,000 feet and settling back to 38,000 feet – speculation slipped into shock.

At 10:08 a.m., the Federal Aviation Administration requested a pair of F-16 Air Force fighter jets overtake and visually inspect N47BA, which lost contact with air traffic controllers just after 9:34 a.m. and blew through a scheduled course change in north Florida. Shortly afterward CNN began reporting that Stewart, two of his agents, a golf course designer and two pilots were aboard the Learjet.

Local TV crews converged on the Stewart’s home and the Golfweek production process slowed to a crawl. An editor, Jeff Babineau, paused in front of the TV, the real-time tragedy unfolding amid sound bites from aviation experts and unanswered updates, and remembered seeing Stewart at a little league football game a week earlier.

Stewart – fresh from an inspiring victory at the Ryder Cup and U.S. Open, where he outdueled Phil Mickelson on a dramatic Sunday to claim his second major championship – had missed the cut at Walt Disney World, one of those blessing in disguise deals, and used a rare free weekend to cheer on his son, Aaron, during a game at Dr. Phillips High School.

It was all part of the macabre happenings that transfixed a stunned newsroom, if not a nation. Think “balloon boy” multiplied by ten.

Nearly four hours after N47BA lifted into a chamber-of-commerce perfect Orlando sky the painfully peculiar episode ended when the Learjet slammed into a South Dakota field at 600 mph, leaving nothing but a 10-foot deep crater and a hole in the golf community that would never be filled.

Stories were assigned, the normal Monday deadline was extended and golf scribes across the nation were frozen over laptops, trapped by a story too big, and too sad, to write.

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Four days later, at the First Baptist Church of Orlando, I was there when Paul Azinger, one of Stewart’s closest confidants on Tour, gave a stirring eulogy that began with the words: “Payne Stewart loved life. He was the life of every party.”

The scene inside the church, the same sanctuary where Stewart had found peace after so much inner turmoil, was just as surreal as the ominous flight. More than 100 PGA Tour players and officials made the trip to Orlando, including Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and former Ryder Cup captains Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins.

I was there when officials passed out red and white WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets to mourners like the one Stewart wore. It’s still on my golf bag and still reminds me of my worst day in more than 15 years of journalism. The media tenet says you don’t cheer for the player, only the story. Yet professors say nothing about feeling grief.

I was there five years later when a central Florida jury cleared the company that owned and operated N47BA of any wrongdoing, yet another blow for a family that had endured more than its share.

And I was there when Azinger, who had been called to testify by the Stewart family lawyers, broke the silence of an elevator ride out of the courthouse to say what all of golf was thinking, “I miss him.”

Els honored with Heisman Humanitarian Award

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 11:41 pm

The annual Heisman Trophy award ceremony is one of the biggest moments in any football season, but there was a touching non-football moment as well on Saturday night as Ernie Els received the Heisman Humanitarian Award.

The award, which had been announced in August, recognized Els' ongoing efforts on behalf of his Els for Autism foundation. Els received the award at Manhattan's PlayStation Theater, where Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy.

Els, 47, founded Els for Autism in 2009 with his wife after their son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism. Their efforts have since flourished into a 26-acre campus in Jupiter, Fla., and the creation of the Els Center for Excellence in 2015.

The Heisman Humanitarian Award has been given out since 2006. Past recipients include NBA center David Robinson, NFL running back Warrick Dunn, soccer star Mia Hamm and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.

A native of South Africa, Els won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 and The Open in 2002 and 2012. He has won 19 times on the PGA Tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.

Getty Images

Monday finish for Joburg Open; Sharma leads by 4

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 8:57 pm

Rain, lightning and hail pushed the Joburg Open to a Monday finish, with India’s Shubhankar Sharma holding a four-stroke lead with 11 holes to play in Johannesburg.

Play is scheduled to resume at 7:30 a.m. local time.

South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen will have a 3-foot putt for birdie to move within three shots of Sharma wen play resumes at the Randpark Golf Club. Sarma is at 22 under par.

Tapio Pulkkanen of Finland and James Morrison of England are tied for third at 14 under. Pulkkanen has 10 holes remaining, Morrison 11.

The top three finishers who are not already exempt, will get spots in next year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.

 

 

Stricker, O'Hair team to win QBE Shootout

By Will GrayDecember 10, 2017, 8:55 pm

It may not count in the official tally, but Steve Stricker is once again in the winner's circle on the PGA Tour.

Stricker teamed with Sean O'Hair to win the two-person QBE Shootout, as the duo combined for a better-ball 64 in the final round to finish two shots clear of Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry. It's the second win in this event for both men; Stricker won with Jerry Kelly back in 2009 while O'Hair lifted the trophy with Kenny Perry in 2012.

Stricker and O'Hair led wire-to-wire in the 54-hole, unofficial event after posting a 15-under 57 during the opening-round scramble.

"We just really gelled well together," Stricker said. "With his length the first day, getting some clubs into the greens, some short irons for me, we just fed off that first day quite a bit. We felt comfortable with one another."


Full-field scores from the QBE Shootout


Stricker won 12 times during his PGA Tour career, most recently at the 2012 Tournament of Champions. More recently the 50-year-old has been splitting his time on the PGA Tour Champions and captained the U.S. to a victory at the Presidents Cup in October. O'Hair has four official Tour wins, most recently at the 2011 RBC Canadian Open.

Pat Perez and Brian Harman finished alone in third, four shots behind Stricker and O'Hair. Lexi Thompson and Tony Finau, the lone co-ed pairing in the 12-team event, finished among a tie for fourth.

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Wie takes shot at LPGA dress code in crop top

By Grill Room TeamDecember 10, 2017, 5:33 pm

The new LPGA dress code got mixed reviews when it was announced in July, and Michelle Wie is taking full advantage of her offseason with no restrictions.

The 28-year-old former U.S. Women's Open champion is keeping her game sharp while back in her home state of Hawaii, but couldn't help taking a shot at the rules while doing it, posting a photo to Instagram of her playing golf in a crop top with the caption, "Offseason = No dress code fine."

Offseason = No dress code fines #croptopdroptop

A post shared by Michelle Wie (@themichellewie) on

Wie isn't the first to voice her displeasure with the rules. Lexi Thompson posted a similar photo and caption to Instagram shortly after the policy was announced.