Triumph to Tragedy

By Rex HoggardNovember 4, 2009, 11:55 pm

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.”
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Expired visa, helicopter, odd clubs all part of Vegas' journey

By Ryan LavnerJuly 19, 2018, 3:48 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Jhonattan Vegas thought someone was playing a practical joke on him.

Or maybe he was stuck in the middle of a horror movie.

Scheduled to leave for The Open a week ago, he didn’t arrive at Carnoustie until a little more than an hour before his first-round tee time Thursday.

“Even if somebody tried to do that on purpose,” he said, “you couldn’t really do it.”

The problem was an expired visa.

Vegas said that he must have gotten confused by the transposed date on the visa – “Guessing I’ve been living in America too long” – and assumed that he was cleared to travel.

No problem, he was told. He’d have a new visa in 24 hours.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


Except the consulate in New York didn’t respond to his application the next day, keeping him in limbo through the weekend. Then, on Monday, he was told that he’d applied for the wrong visa. UPS got shut down in New York and his visa never left, so Vegas waited in vain for seven hours in front of the consulate in Houston. He finally secured his visa on Wednesday morning, boarded a flight from Houston to Toronto, and then flew to Glasgow, the final leg of a 14-hour journey.

His agent arranged a helicopter ride from Glasgow to Carnoustie to ensure that he could make his 10:31 a.m. (local) tee time.

One more issue? His clubs never made it. They were left back in Toronto.

His caddie, Ruben Yorio, scrambled to put together a new bag, with a mismatched set of woods, irons, wedges and putter.

“Luckily the (equipment) vans are still here,” Vegas said. “Otherwise I probably would have played with members’ clubs today.”

He hit about 20 balls on the range – “Luckily they were going forward” – but Carnoustie is one of the most challenging links in the world, and Vegas was working off of two hours’ sleep and without his own custom-built clubs. He shot 76 but, hey, at least he tried.

“It was fun,” he said, “even though the journey was frustrating.”

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'Brain fart' leads to Spieth's late collapse

By Rex HoggardJuly 19, 2018, 2:44 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – The closing stretch at Carnoustie has famously ruined many a solid round, so Jordan Spieth’s misadventures on Thursday should not have been a complete surprise, but the truth is the defending champion’s miscues were very much self-inflicted.

Spieth was cruising along at 3 under par, just two shots off the early lead, when he made a combination of errors at the par-4 15th hole. He hit the wrong club off the tee (4-iron) and the wrong club for his approach (6-iron) on his way to a double bogey-6.

“The problem was on the second shot, I should have hit enough club to reach the front of the green, and even if it goes 20 yards over the green, it's an easy up-and-down,” Spieth said. “I just had a brain fart, and I missed it into the location where the only pot bunker where I could actually get in trouble, and it plugged deep into it. It was a really, really poor decision on the second shot, and that cost me.”


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


Spieth continued to compound his problems with a sloppy bogey at the 16th hole, and a drive that sailed left at 18 found the Barry Burn en route to a closing bogey and a 1-over 72.

The miscues were more mental, a lack of execution, than they were an example of how difficult the closing stretch at Carnoustie can be, and that’s not good enough for Spieth.

“That's what I would consider as a significant advantage for me is recognizing where the misses are,” said Spieth, who was tied for 68th when he completed his round. “It felt like a missed opportunity.”

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Perez: R&A does it right, 'not like the USGA'

By Rex HoggardJuly 19, 2018, 2:28 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Pat Perez didn’t even attempt to hide his frustration with the USGA at last month’s U.S. Open, and after an opening-round 69 at The Open, he took the opportunity to double down on his displeasure.

“They (the R&A) do it right, not like the USGA,” Perez said of the setup at Carnoustie. “They've got the opposite [philosophy] here. I told them, you guys have it right, let the course get baked, but you've got the greens receptive. They're not going to run and be out of control. They could have easily had the greens just like the fairway, but they didn't. The course is just set up perfect.”


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


Concerns at Shinnecock Hills reached a crescendo on Saturday when the scoring average ballooned to 75.3 and only three players broke the par of 70. Of particular concern for many players, including Perez, were some of the hole locations, given how fast and firm the greens were.

“The U.S. Open could have been like this more if they wanted to. They could have made the greens a bit more receptive,” Perez said. “These greens are really flat compared to Shinnecock. So that was kind of the problem there is they let it get out of control and they made the greens too hard.”