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'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.