When Mike Hicks caddied in last month’s Byron Nelson Championship, he stayed with a friend of his former boss.
Lamar Haynes was a college teammate of Payne Stewart at SMU, so this was a reunion of sorts with Hicks, who’d spent a dozen years toting Stewart’s bag.
On Tuesday night of that week, they were channel surfing, with Haynes flipping between NBA and NHL playoff games. At one point, both were in commercial, so he clicked over to Golf Channel. As coincidence – or maybe luck – would have it, a rebroadcast of the 1999 U.S. Open final round, during which Hicks caddied Stewart to victory, had just started.
“Lamar goes, ‘Jeez, can you believe this?’” Hicks recalls. “And I said I’d never seen it.”
That’s right. The man who spent so many years walking the fairways with Stewart, the man who witnessed so much heartache and heroism, who leapt into his arms when the final putt dropped that day and spoke at his memorial service a few months later following the plane accident, had never seen the entire final round.
“I’ve got the tape, but I had just never sat down and watched it,” he admits. “If Payne hadn’t passed away in October, at some point that winter I would have watched the tape. But I don’t know – it’s just been strange for me.”
So there they were, two of the men who knew Stewart best, 15 years after his win and 15 years after his death, sitting together and watching the historic final round.
And what did they see?
“What really astounded me was the focus that he had, the look of determination on his face,” Hicks says. “When you’re in the heat of the moment, you don’t really notice that stuff.”
Excuse him if he’s a little emotional next week as the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst No. 2, that statue of Stewart in victorious pose loitering near the final green. The memories of that week will come flooding back.
He remembers they barely spoke during that final round.
“There was no small talk between Payne and I. He didn’t say five words to me that day, other than, ‘What do we got? What’s it playing? How’s the wind?’”
He remembers leaving the course with Stewart around 10 p.m., then driving 65 miles to his own house in Mebane, N.C., where Stewart spent time with all of the caddie’s friends and neighbors who had gathered there.
“To win in your home state, then to have the major champion stay in your house – it just doesn’t happen. But I was blessed enough and fortunate enough to have that happen.”
He remembers the next day, when Stewart shook off a 4 a.m. bedtime and honored his commitment – along with Paul Azinger, Fred Couples and Hal Sutton – to attend an event at Hicks’ home club, Mill Creek.
“He made a putt on the first hole and says, ‘Well, that’s four one-putts in a row.’ On the next hole, he closed his eyes and made another. ‘That’s five one-putts in a row.’ Then another on the next hole. ‘That’s six in a row.’ He was really giving those guys the business.”
Hicks still thinks about Stewart pretty frequently – every time he walks past his refrigerator, in fact. There is a photo of him attached to the door, not playing golf, but from a photo shoot for his clothing line.
It wouldn’t be presumptuous to believe that Hicks prefers to remember his friend as a person, not just a golfer.
While the flags from the final green at each of Stewart’s first two major championships have long since been framed and hung, the flag from the 1999 U.S. Open remains neither, instead sitting unceremoniously on a shelf in Hicks’ bedroom closet.
In the years since Stewart’s death, he caddied for a who’s who on the PGA Tour – from Lee Janzen to Justin Leonard to Steve Stricker to Charles Howell III, but none could replace the player with whom he’s still most closely associated.
“I got along with all of them, but it just wasn’t the same,” he says. “Never will be the same; never going to find another job like I had.”
After 34 years of caddying, Hicks maintains that he’s finally done. Retired for good. He is diabetic, has a herniated disc and a hip that needs replacing. “My body is kind of worn down,” he admits. “I’m burned out.”
Hicks looped for the last time a few weeks ago for Spencer Levin at the Crowne Plaza Invitational, then returned home to Mebane, where he works as an instructor, taking the most pleasure in coaching junior golfers and helping them to, as he puts it, “caddie for themselves.”
He used to get asked about caddying for Stewart and winning the ’99 U.S. Open every day, but those questions have subsided over time. They’ll return in waves next week, as the focus is once again on that magical journey among the pines – and so will Hicks’ memory, those images rushing back to him.
“It really feels like yesterday that I was caddying for Payne,” he says. “It’s all gone by so fast.”