Gone But Not Forgotten

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The 100th U.S. Open will officially begin on Thursday. But before play could commence, a somber ceremony was held early Wednesday morning to pay tribute to the 1999 champion.
 
For the second time in his celebrated career, Payne Stewart captured the National Open in 1999 at Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Tragically, he perished in a plane crash just four months later.
 
In the eight months since his passing, tales have been told and memories have been shared. On Wednesday, one last tribute was showcased before the trophy is to be officially handed over to another man.
 
Some 40 players, including Byron Nelson, Tom Lehman, Davis Love III, Chris Perry, Phil Mickelson, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia gathered with friends and family at 7:00am PT on a captivatingly poetic oceanfront green to pay homage to the late Payne Stewart.
 
USGA President Trey Holland spoke first, and then stood aside for Stewart's long-time friend Paul Azinger.
 
Choking back tears, Azinger said: 'I challenge you not to forget Payne Stewart, not just Payne the golfer, but Payne the person.'
 
Tracey Stewart, Payne's widow, then followed Azinger. She spoke on the difficulties of coping without her late husband, as well as delivering a message of hope.
 
After Tracey spoke, the song 'With Hope' was played. Then, 21 players approached 21 tees lined along the fairway facing the Pacific Ocean. On Holland's command, they hit the balls simultaneously into the ocean.
 
A second wave of players then repeated the 21-shot salute. The silence was punctured by the statement: 'We love you, Payne!'
 
For the first time since an auto accident sidelined Ben Hogan in 1949, an Open champion will not defend his title. Stewart, who loved Pebble Beach dearly, certainly would have been one of the favorites this week. As it is, that role will be divided among several others.
Tiger Woods heads the list, if for only the fact that he won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February.
 
There's David Duval, who earned his best finish of the season last week. Duval lost to Dennis Paulson in a playoff at the Buick Classic.
 
With new vision and a new putter, Vijay Singh could add the Open to his 2000 Masters title. Singh ditched his 3-foot model for the Paul Azinger-style 45'-putter. He also underwent laser eye surgery two weeks ago.
 
'My putting hasn't changed, but I anchor it into my belly,' Singh said. 'To me, it doesn't feel like a long putter. I've got a normal grip and I'm standing up exactly the same way. It's just the extension that makes the difference.'
 
As for his corrected eye sight, Singh said: 'Each week it gets better. I didn't see things very well last week, but it's getting to where I can see everything right now.'
 
Of course, there are the usual U.S. Open suspects to keep an eye out for - Two-time champion Ernie Els, fellow multiple winner Lee Janzen, Lehman, who has four top-5's in the last five years, 1999 runner-up Mickelson, 1996 runner-up Love III and 1994 runner-up Colin Montgomerie.
 
Statistics show Monty's success is dependent upon his ability to drive the ball into the fairway. On three occasions, the Scotsman has finished the tournament in the top-three in driving accuracy. Each time he's finished the tournament in the top-three.
 
'I've happened to hit more fairways than anyone else. And that's a good start,' said Montgomerie. 'I feel if I can hit the fairways, then I can hit the greens and then you have a birdie putt. If you don't hit the fairways, you aren't having many birdie putts.'
 
Montgomerie isn't the only European with a chance to win this week. Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke both have victories over Tiger Woods under their belts this season. However, one European who won't be adding this major championship to his resume is Paul Lawrie. The reigning British Open champion withdrew earlier in the week due to a groin injury. Don Pooley replaced him.
 
Lawrie joins Steve Elkington on the inactive list this week. Elk withdrew Wednesday because of a sinus and ear infection which kept him from flying. South African Rory Sabbatini replaced the Australian.
 
While it's easy to be transfixed on the odds-on favorites, you can't overlook players like Nick Price or 5-time AT&T champion Mark O'Meara. Price is an excellent wind player and O'Meara's five wins at Pebble Beach speak for themselves.
 
Thursday at 6:30am PT the group of Mark Brooks, Brent Geiberger and Bob May will commence the 2000 U.S. Open. Three days later, someone's name will be engraved on the trophy. That will officially end Payne Stewart's reign as U.S. Open champion. And while he won't be there in body to acknowledge or congratulate the 2000 champion, he'll be there in spirit and in mind. As he has and will always be for so many of those associated with the game of golf.
 
NEWS, NOTES AND NUMBERS
*This year's purse is $4,500,000. The winner will receive $800,000.
 
*The 2nd hole has been changed from a par-5 to a 484-yard par-4. The overall par for the course is 71.
 
*At 60-years-old, Jack Nicklaus will be playing in his 44th consecutive U.S. Open championship, dating back to his first in 1957 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio as an amateur.
 
*The Open winner will receive an Open exemption for the next ten years, invitations to the Masters Tournament and the PGA Championship for the next five years, invitations to the British Open and THE PLAYERS Championship for the next ten years and exempt status on the PGA TOUR for the next five years.