PINEHURST, N.C. – There was something surprisingly emotional about watching Rickie Fowler honor Payne Stewart by playing golf around Pinehurst No. 2 in knickers and high socks on Thursday at the U.S. Open. It was a wonderful gesture, something that tells you so much about Rickie Fowler’s character. He did not know Stewart, of course. But he wanted to honor the man.
Fowler decided to do it a few months ago – worked out the details with his apparel sponsor – and he told only a few friends and family members. He wanted it to be a surprise. He very much enjoyed walking into the clubhouse and seeing Phil Mickelson, Stewart’s foil at the 1999 U.S. Open. Mickelson smiled and gave Fowler the thumbs-up. Well, it was just one of those perfectly understated displays of homage.
But as the afternoon went on, it became something more. The fans at every hole were touched. They yelled out Payne’s name. They shouted out, “Rickie Stewart!” I was here in Pinehurst in 1999 when Stewart made that putt on the 18th to beat Mickelson and then threw his fist forward in triumph. We were all so much younger then. Tiger Woods had won just one major championship – the 1997 Masters – and there were some people who actually wondered if he would become the superstar everyone had predicted.
Mickelson then was about to turn 29, about to have his first child, and he’d not yet even come close to winning a major championship.
And Payne Stewart … well, he was 42 by then, and he’d already had a fascinating golfing career. Stewart was a complicated man. He was best known for those traditional outfits Fowler honored; he did have a deep love for golf history. But people would see those outfits and assume the man wearing them was approachable and a free spirit. And Payne Stewart, for the most part, was neither.
He was, instead, a very serious man who always seemed to be fighting demons. His father, Bill, had taught him the game. Bill died of cancer when Stewart was 28, just after he won his first Tour event. The next time Stewart won a tournament, at Bay Hill, he donated his entire winners’ check to a Florida hospital in his father’s memory.
He never seemed especially happy when he found success. Maybe it did not mean very much without his father there to enjoy it with him. Maybe he was just too driven to ever rest. In 1989, at the PGA Championship, Stewart made one of the most stirring comebacks in golf history. He trailed Mike Reid by six shots going into the final round. He birdied four of the last five holes to win by a shot.
He won a couple of tournaments in 1990, won the 1991 U.S. Open in a playoff. He seemed to have everything. He had a gorgeous golf swing, the adoration of fans, a wonderful family, and he was winning. “I didn’t enjoy it much,” he would say. “I didn’t have time to enjoy it. I regret that part. I was always trying to be somewhere else, always trying to do something else. I should have stopped and had some fun when I was on top.”
And then he went into a slump, wasn’t on top, and things got worse. He argued with fans and reporters. He was grouchier. He was surlier. “I was not a very good person then,” he said.
Then, something happened. Payne Stewart stopped. I spent some time with him one day in his hometown of Springfield, Mo.; he was there for an event of some kind. He talked about how his children had helped him become more spiritual. He talked about how he had come to see life as being bigger than golf. He explained that winning and losing no longer consumed him the way it had.
And it was right about then that he had a golfing resurgence – he was in position to win the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco but was beaten in the final three holes by Lee Janzen. And he did not let the near-win tear him apart.
A year later, he was here at Pinehurst, and the emotion surrounded Mickelson, who was wearing a beeper because his wife was due any day. After Stewart made the putt to beat Mickelson, he pulled him close and told him that he would win many U.S. Opens in the future. And then he pulled him even closer and said, “You're going to be a great father!”
Three months later, Stewart played in the Ryder Cup and though he was openly and loudly patriotic – he loved to blare Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” in the hallways whenever he made a Ryder Cup team – he displayed the ultimate sportsmanship in his singles match against Colin Montgomerie. He chastised people in the crowd when they yelled rude things at Monty. And, even more, when they got to the 18th hole he conceded a long putt – and the match – to Monty because the U.S. had already clinched the Cup.
“He doesn’t deserve what he went through out there today … it’s not fair,” Stewart told reporters. “That’s not what this sport is about.”
“A pure sportsman,” Monty told reporters later.
He really did seem to be enjoying it all so much more. He became much more approachable. “This has been the best year, by far,” he told us at that Ryder Cup.
Payne Stewart’s plane crashed about a month after that Ryder Cup.
A lot of that rushed back on Thursday as Rickie Fowler played in Payne Stewart’s old outfit. A lot of that rushed back on Thursday as Phil Mickelson clawed his way around Pinehurst No. 2 at even par. As sportswriters, as fans, we only get so close to athletes. We only get to know them a little bit. But sometimes, maybe, we get close enough to understand them just a little bit.
When asked why he decided to wear the knickers, Fowler explained that Stewart had been one of his favorite golfers when he was a kid – Stewart died when Fowler was 10. Then, when asked if there was anything in Stewart’s golfing game that he tried to put into his own, he said this:
“Not necessarily. Everyone is a different player. But maybe more on how he handled himself as a person who he was, and how he was on and off the golf course.”
Stewart would tell you he wasn’t always proud of the way he handled himself on and off the golf course. But he was trying. He was really trying. And that is the best any of us can do.