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.

Related Content

  • Baggs: The 1999 PGA Championship
  • Coffin: The Curious Case of David Duval
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.”
Getty Images

Watch: Tiger makes 6 birdies, 1 amazing par in Rd. 3

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 21, 2018, 4:10 pm

Tiger Woods started the third round of The Open at even par, having made seven birdies and seven bogeys over the first 36 holes at Carnoustie.

Following three pars to start on Saturday, Woods went on a birdie binge.

No. 1 came with this putt at the par-4 fourth.


No. 2 with this two-putt at the par-5 sixth.


No. 3 thanks to this 30-footer at the par-4 ninth.


No. 4 after nearly jarring his approach shot on the par-4 10th.


No. 5 when he almost drove the green at the par-4 11th and two-putted, from just off the green, from 95 feet.


And No. 6, which gave him a share of the lead, came courtesy another two-putt at the par-5 14th.


Woods bogeyed the par-3 16th to drop out of the lead and almost dropped - at least - one more shot at the par-4 18th. But his tee shot got a lucky bounce and he turned his good fortune into a par.


Woods shot 5-under 66 and finished the day at 5 under par.

Getty Images

Tiger Tracker: 147th Open Championship

By Tiger TrackerJuly 21, 2018, 4:05 pm

Tiger Woods made six birdies and one bogey on Saturday for a 5-under 66 in the third round of The Open. We're tracking him as he vies for major No. 15.


Getty Images

Rose's Saturday 64 matches Carnoustie Open record

By Ryan LavnerJuly 21, 2018, 1:03 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Justin Rose needed to sink a 14-foot putt on the final hole Friday just to make the cut on the number at The Open.

Freewheeling when he came to the course Saturday, Rose tied the lowest score ever recorded in an Open at Carnoustie.

Entering the weekend nine shots off the lead, the world No. 3 carded a bogey-free, 7-under 64 to at least make things interesting. It won’t be known for several hours how many shots Rose will be behind, but his back-nine 30 gives him an opportunity, if the wind blows 25 mph Sunday as forecast, to challenge the leaders.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


After all, Paul Lawrie was 10 shots back entering the final round here in 1999.

“I think the birdie on 18 last night freed me up, and I’m just very happy to be out on this golf course and not down the road somewhere else this morning,” said Rose, who is at 4-under 209. “So that might have been part of the shift in mindset today. I had nothing to lose from that point of view.”

Rose’s 64 matched Steve Stricker and Richard Green’s record score at Carnoustie (2007).

It also was Rose’s career-low round in a major.

Getty Images

Watch: Full replays of The Open coverage

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 21, 2018, 12:20 pm

NBC Sports and Golf Channel are showcasing nearly 50 hours of live coverage of the 147th Open. Missed anything? Well, you can catch up right here. Click on the links below for replays from Carnoustie, broken down into daily segments:

Saturday, Day 3 (Times ET)

4:30-7AM (Watch): Sunny skies and birdies were on the menu early in Round 3, as Justin Rose made his way around Carnoustie in 64 strokes. Click here or on the image below to watch.


Friday, Day 2 (Times ET)

8:20AM-3PM (Watch): As the skies cleared on Friday afternoon, defending champion Jordan Spieth made a run to try and regain the claret jug. Click here or on the image below to watch. Also, click here to watch the full replay of the marquee group: Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose and Kiradech Aphibarnrat.

1:30-8:20AM (Watch): On a rainy Friday morning at Carnoustie, Rory McIlroy shot 69 to reach 4 under, while Zach Johnson fired a 67 for the early lead. Click here or on the image below to watch. Also, click here to watch the full replay of the marquee group: Brooks Koepka, Ian Poulter and Cameron Smith.


Thursday, Day 1 (Times ET)

Noon-4PM (Watch): Tiger Woods was up and down in the afternoon, as winds picked up a little and no one could catch Kevin Kisner. Click here or on the image below to watch. Also, click here to watch the full replay of the marquee group: Woods, Russell Knox and Hideki Matsuyama.

1:30-8:25AM (Watch): Defending champion Jordan Spieth got off to a good start, while Kevin Kisner (66) set the early pace. Click here or on the image below to watch. Also, click here to watch the full replay of the marquee group: Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm and Chris Wood.