Payne Stewarts legacy lives on in son Aaron


It was a seminal moment, like 9/11 or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and it is burned into the collective consciousness by circumstance and shock.

The average cable viewer on Oct. 25, 1999, probably had little idea who Payne Stewart was or what the charismatic Missourian had accomplished on golfs grandest stages, yet a decade later the image of Learjet N47BAs ghostly journey across Americas heartland is still vivid.

I was buying a card for my wife, recalls fellow touring pro and friend Larry Rinker, the emotions flooding back with HD clarity. Someone called me and I just remember standing in the store thinking, I cant do this.

Aaron Stewart
Aaron Stewart

The eerie facts are all too familiar.

Stewart, his agent Robert Farley, Van Ardan and Bruce Borland, a golf course architect who was working with Stewart, took off from Orlando International Airport bound for Dallas on the morning of Oct. 25. Stewart was consulting with officials at Southern Methodist University, his alma mater, on a golf course and from there he planned to fly to Houston for the Tour Championship.

At 9:27 a.m. (ET), officials recorded the last communication from the pilots of N47BA. Less than 6 minutes later a request by air traffic controllers for the pilots to change frequencies went unanswered.

For nearly an hour-and-half Stewarts plane porpoised through the sky, gently climbing until it reached the engines operational ceiling at which time the autopilot would ease the plane back to an acceptable altitude. The plane ran out of fuel over South Dakota and crashed into a field near Mina, a town about 10 miles west of Aberdeen.

The National Transportation and Safety Boards official report of the accident concluded a sudden loss of cabin pressure overwhelmed the passengers and crew and all on board died of hypoxia.

Less than a month removed from his signature team victory at the Ryder Cup and less than five months removed from his defining individual triumph at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, Stewarts legacy ended as a stunned nation watched.

Everyone, that is, except for a towheaded 10-year-old.

Aaron Stewart, Paynes son and the youngest of two children, vaguely remembers the day his mother, Tracey, told him his father was gone. The day family friend Jon Brendle took him on his lap and promised to tell him every story about his father. But thats not where Aarons mind races a decade later when he is asked to remember Payne.

Now a square-shouldered young man with his own mop of blond hair and a devilish sense of humor, Aaron Stewart remembers the day Payne outdueled Phil Mickelson at Pinehurst. The chills he got when his father holed the winning putt on the 72nd hole, the pride he felt.

Paul Azinger and Aaron Stewart
Paul Azinger and Aaron Stewart at the 2008 Father/Son Challenge. (Getty Images)

I watched the whole round, in front of the TV. It was a rainy day (in Florida), like at Pinehurst, said Aaron Stewart, who didnt play golf at the time. I didnt know that it was as big a deal as it really was. That is what I remember the best.

Just over Aaron Stewarts left shoulder in the clubhouse at Sugarloaf Mountain Golf Club near Orlando, Fla., as recounts that rainy June day is a picture of Payne celebrating with the U.S. Ryder Cup team at Brookline. Aaron vaguely remembers Americas comeback, much like he remembers his fathers final fateful flight, but its Pinehurst that resonates.

We went to Pinehurst a few years ago. I made that putt (on the 18th hole). It took me a couple of tries, but I did it, recalls Aaron Stewart as a smile inches across his boyish face.

There is a familiarity to Aaron Stewarts swing, a distant reminder of his fathers graceful action but somehow modernized by motion and a game that has left lazy behind.

Its definitely two different swings, said Aaron Stewart, who started playing golf shortly after his father died and receives instruction from Paynes former swing coach, Chuck Cook. We look at my dads swings on video, I look at that and where I am, its pretty different.

Even 10 years later, Paynes shadow is impossible for Aaron Stewart to avoid and, if his actions are any indication, he has neither the inclination nor the ability to avoid his fathers legacy.

Aaron Stewart could have played college golf at a dozen schools, but he picked SMU, he picked Cook, he picked golf. At school there is a statue of Payne in the Hall of Distinguished Alum, its much like the statue of Payne officials put up at Pinehurst or the one at Waterville Golf Club in Ireland.

This one, however, is just upstairs from the workout room the SMU golf team uses. Its not there to remind Aaron Stewart what he has to live up to so much as it is an example of how he should live his life, much like the pictures he has of his father in his room at school.

Aaron Stewart has another memory of his father. Its a snapshot of a church filled with 5,000 of his fathers friends and family. A eulogy delivered in signature tam oshanter cap and plus fours by Paul Azinger. A line of Tour players waiting to embrace he, his sister and mother.

Lerner: Payne Stewart: More than a champion

It was a tough day, but it was nice to hear all the nice stories, Aaron said of the funeral service. It was nice to see how many people he influenced. It was cool to see.

In his eulogy, Azinger spoke for an entire generation: To try to accept the magnitude of this tragedy is the hardest thing I've ever had to do.

A decade removed from the tragic happenings of Oct. 25, 1999, the 10-year-old who seemed oblivious to it all has figured out the secret. The truth is, Aaron Stewart has learned that the best way to accept the loss is to never stop thinking about his father.

Every day, Aaron Stewart said. My mom and my sister and I think about him every day.