Triumph to Tragedy


Project 99I was there when … time stood still, when a nondescript Learjet and an even more seemingly innocuous mechanical problem turned a mundane Monday into a day with infinite shelf life and consequences that still echo a decade later.

As a first-year assistant editor for Golfweek magazine’s nascent Web site Mondays were “cleanup” days following Sunday’s competitive climax. Money lists were updated, TV schedules for the coming week posted, busy work. But the images that flashed on the silent screen from CNN’s Atlanta studios just before 10 a.m. (ET) had an eerie familiarity to them even before the government and media had put Payne Stewart on the doomed Learjet 35.

Initially, N47BA – the only identifier on the Learjet’s rear wing – was a curiosity, a flight that departed Orlando International Airport at 9:19 a.m. with unknown crew and cargo that had fallen silent and was streaking out of the Heart of Dixie and into the American consciousness.

Payne Stewart
Fans memorialized Payne Stewart's parking spot at the 1999 Tour Championship. (Getty Images)
Among the early reports that were quickly floated and almost as quickly proven erroneous was the prospect that Tiger Woods, an Orlando-area resident and a regular private jet user, was aboard N47BA.

There were also suggestions that the military was considering shooting the Learjet out of the sky to assure it wouldn’t crash into a populated area. Although a military spokesman would later say that was never a consideration, an official Air Force log shows there were two F-16s “suited up” (armed) in Fargo, N.D., and “on immediate alert.”

Yet as the Learjet continued its ghostly and doomed journey – porpoising through the sky, fixed in a slight climb before peaking at 51,000 feet and settling back to 38,000 feet – speculation slipped into shock.

At 10:08 a.m., the Federal Aviation Administration requested a pair of F-16 Air Force fighter jets overtake and visually inspect N47BA, which lost contact with air traffic controllers just after 9:34 a.m. and blew through a scheduled course change in north Florida. Shortly afterward CNN began reporting that Stewart, two of his agents, a golf course designer and two pilots were aboard the Learjet.

Local TV crews converged on the Stewart’s home and the Golfweek production process slowed to a crawl. An editor, Jeff Babineau, paused in front of the TV, the real-time tragedy unfolding amid sound bites from aviation experts and unanswered updates, and remembered seeing Stewart at a little league football game a week earlier.

Stewart – fresh from an inspiring victory at the Ryder Cup and U.S. Open, where he outdueled Phil Mickelson on a dramatic Sunday to claim his second major championship – had missed the cut at Walt Disney World, one of those blessing in disguise deals, and used a rare free weekend to cheer on his son, Aaron, during a game at Dr. Phillips High School.

It was all part of the macabre happenings that transfixed a stunned newsroom, if not a nation. Think “balloon boy” multiplied by ten.

Nearly four hours after N47BA lifted into a chamber-of-commerce perfect Orlando sky the painfully peculiar episode ended when the Learjet slammed into a South Dakota field at 600 mph, leaving nothing but a 10-foot deep crater and a hole in the golf community that would never be filled.

Stories were assigned, the normal Monday deadline was extended and golf scribes across the nation were frozen over laptops, trapped by a story too big, and too sad, to write.

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Four days later, at the First Baptist Church of Orlando, I was there when Paul Azinger, one of Stewart’s closest confidants on Tour, gave a stirring eulogy that began with the words: “Payne Stewart loved life. He was the life of every party.”

The scene inside the church, the same sanctuary where Stewart had found peace after so much inner turmoil, was just as surreal as the ominous flight. More than 100 PGA Tour players and officials made the trip to Orlando, including Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and former Ryder Cup captains Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins.

I was there when officials passed out red and white WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets to mourners like the one Stewart wore. It’s still on my golf bag and still reminds me of my worst day in more than 15 years of journalism. The media tenet says you don’t cheer for the player, only the story. Yet professors say nothing about feeling grief.

I was there five years later when a central Florida jury cleared the company that owned and operated N47BA of any wrongdoing, yet another blow for a family that had endured more than its share.

And I was there when Azinger, who had been called to testify by the Stewart family lawyers, broke the silence of an elevator ride out of the courthouse to say what all of golf was thinking, “I miss him.”