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.
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.