Payne Stewart More than a champion


My most vivid memory from the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst was not Payne Stewarts winning putt but rather what happened in the press center after.

Unquestionably the gutsy 72nd-hole par lives forever as a testament to Stewarts fearless quality. He was also mischievous, which is no great revelation to those who knew him.

Payne Stewart memorial statue
Payne Stewart's winning putt in the 1999 U.S. Open is memorialized at Pinehurst. (Getty Images)

On the left side of a packed media room, I stood in front of a television camera, intently delivering my report on the momentous events of the day. Unbeknownst to me, Payne slipped into the gathering. Just behind me and seeing that I was oblivious, he began waving his arms, with that big smile of his, reporters erupting in laughter. It was a spontaneous, happy moment, albeit at my expense.

And it was pure Payne. He loved to play.

People forget though that Payne was a work in progress in the months leading up to that U.S. Open. He had opened himself to the possibility that he needed improvement, not just as a golfer but as a man.

I interviewed Payne at his lavish home in Orlando just before Pinehurst. It struck me that like a lot of men in their early 40s Payne figured it was time to grow up because suddenly time wasnt the best friend it used to be.

He had curbed his drinking because he saw how it affected his behavior and knew that his mother was an alcoholic.

We had a big family discussion about this, he said in 1999. Id come home and quite a few nights drink three martinis and it hit me that I needed to dial it back. Alcoholism is in our family and I know the toll it can take so hopefully I wont ever have to go through that.

Payne paid closer attention to his family because any kid would rather have a father first and a famous golfer for a dad second.

Hoggard: Stewart's legacy lives on in son Aaron

I think probably my family has made me mature more, Payne said. I need to set an example for my kids. I dont want them to act the way I used to act. I want them to learn through me.

Aaron was 10 and Chelsea 13. By all accounts today theyre both well adjusted, in no small measure because of the brave parenting of Paynes widow Tracey, but also because of the changes Payne had made in the final years of his life.

Payne also rededicated himself to his craft because he realized that talent wasted is an awful burden to grow old with.

I didnt want to look back and say I couldve done more, he said.

Soon after we talked, Payne won the U.S. Open. Given his sound emotional state, I wasnt surprised.

Payne also desperately wanted to be part of the 1999 Ryder Cup, certain he could help restore Americas sagging fortunes.

At Brookline, with that intoxicating patriotic brew producing some ugly behavior, specifically toward Colin Montgomerie, Payne tried to restore civility.

He conceded his match against Monty, even though it was one Payne was not going to win. Still, though, Payne did the right thing. And thats where Payne was in his life, at a point where doing the right thing ' with family and with golf ' was a priority.

And so 10 years after his greatest triumph and tragic death, Paynes story will always be instructive, a reminder that change is possible and healthy, that yesterday only matters if you learn from it, that tomorrows not promised. Its also a reminder that now is the time to act, time to smile, time to contemplate, time to be bold, time to care and the time to do the right thing.

What we do does resonate, in ways big and small. This day and forever.