Players Hold Strong Memories of Stewart


LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Paul Azinger rarely plays in a golf tournament without something reminding him of Payne Stewart, and the memories were particularly strong during The Funai Classic at Disney.
Monday marked the five-year anniversary of the plane crash that killed Stewart and five others. Disney was the last tournament he played.
Three days after he missed the cut by one shot, Stewart boarded a private plane for a meeting on a golf course project in Dallas and then to play the Tour Championship in Houston. The plane lost cabin pressure and flew uncontrolled across the country until it ran out of fuel and plunged into a field in South Dakota.
Azinger and Stewart were partners for the first two pro-am rounds at Disney that year. Even though he shot 71-71, Stewart managed to make headlines by speaking in a mock Chinese accent on ESPN during a rain delay to retaliate for comments British golf analyst Peter Alliss had made about the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
'I watched him do it,' Azinger said, smiling and shaking his head. 'He comes over to me and says, 'Hey, that was pretty funny, huh?' I told him, 'Congratulations, Payne. You just insulted about 3 billion people.''
Azinger remembers the loose lips, the pranks, the jabs. He remembers their favorite fishing spot behind the fifth hole on the Magnolia course, where they once came across a rattlesnake on a dirt path and hit 1-irons at it. Ask him about the Ryder Cup, and Azinger talks about the music Stewart brought: 'Born in the USA' blared down the hallways of the hotel.
Tom Lehman remembers, too.
He delivered a powerful tribute to Stewart during a chilling ceremony before the start of the '99 Tour Championship, where an eerie fog shrouded the first fairway as players sat in shock. Lehman tries to have dinner with Stewart's widow, Tracey, every time he comes to Orlando for Bay Hill or Disney.
'I think about Payne fairly frequently,' Lehman said. 'It could be anything ' highlights of a golf tournament, a guy in knickers, thinking about the Ryder Cup, coming to Orlando, getting on a private jet. You don't want to forget. I don't know if you want to dwell on what happened five years ago, but you don't want to forget.'
Anyone who goes in the locker room at Disney cannot forget Stewart.
Past champions have their own row of lockers. Stewart's locker has a glass door to show its contents ' a pair of red plus-fours on a hanger, a white shirt with his silhouette stitched in navy blue. A white tam-o'-shanter cap is on a hook above white shoes and a worn glove. A box of golf balls is on the top shelf.
One look at the balls ' a black box of Titleist Tour Prestige, a wound golf ball now obsolete ' was a reminder of how long ago it seems that the reigning U.S. Open champion died.
Even more startling was to see Stewart's son on the practice range early last week. Aaron is 15, a sophomore on the junior varsity golf team at Olympia High in Orlando.
'He's a big boy now,' Azinger said. 'He's got a nice swing ' a two-plane swing, just like his daddy.'
On Sunday, some volunteers wore a picture of Stewart around their necks, urging fans not to forget.
But there was another part of Disney that made Azinger think of his dear friend.
This usually is the time when the PGA of America interviews candidates for Ryder Cup captain. Among those under consideration are Azinger, Lehman, Mark O'Meara, Fred Couples, perhaps even Larry Nelson.
The Ryder Cup was not even mentioned last week. The PGA of America is huddled at headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, trying to figure out who should get the job.
'They're in a jam, because Payne Stewart would be the logical choice,' Azinger said. 'And now, they don't know what to do. He wanted to be the captain in Ireland. He had already looked that far out. Unfortunately, he isn't here.'
Azinger said he already has talked to PGA president M.G. Orender, but he doesn't want to be captain in 2006. He also said Tracey Stewart wanted to see Azinger as captain in Ireland, to take over for her husband.
'I'm just not quite ready to do it,' Azinger said.
Stewart epitomized the Ryder Cup. He was intense, patriotic, never lacking in sportsmanship. In his last match in 1999, Stewart conceded a birdie putt to Colin Montgomerie to spare the Scotsman from further heckling at Brookline.
He was a regular in Ireland before the British Open, endearing himself on the golf course and in pubs alike. Stewart would have been the logical choice for the '06 matches on the Emerald Isle.
He would have been the only choice.
'A no-brainer,' Lehman said.
Hal Sutton was walking down his hallway this summer when he saw a framed picture from the '99 Ryder Cup. There was Stewart in the middle of the celebration, spraying champagne from the balcony of The Country Club after a stunning U.S. comeback.
Sutton brought the picture to Oakland Hills and hung it in the team room.
'That picture showed passion. It showed that he cared,' Sutton said. 'I wanted to remember him in that way.'
Stewart left memories for everyone.
He also left the PGA of America without a simple choice for Ryder Cup captain.
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