(Editor's note: For Golf Channel's 25th anniversary, Brandel Chamblee reveals his top 25 impactful moments over the last 25 years. Click here to listen to Chamblee's podcast with Jaime Diaz, revealing Golf Channel's official top 25 moments.)
6. Payne Stewart's Death
Golf’s history has been rich in, and enriched by, great personalities and colorful characters, but especially so in earlier eras. Walter Hagen was an explosion of styles. Like the tallest and most recognizable building of a 1920's skyline, he epitomized the Art Deco style of the roaring '20s, the era when he played his best golf. He wasn’t just all style, there was substance to the man. Over the years, just to name a few of the larger than life men and women in this game, there were Wild Bill Melhorn, Ky Laffoon, Babe Zaharias, Sam Snead, Jimmy Demaret, Don Cherry, Tony Lema, Lee Trevino, Joanne Carner.
Then, in the 1980s, along came a young man named Payne Stewart, who was an amalgam of all of these men and women. As if there had been an error in chronology and assigned all of the strange and beautiful traits of the past players to one man. His golf swing had a Sneadian lyricism to it and his attire was a remembrance of things past. He was an athletic and aesthetic anachronism. He was witty. He was funny. Like Don Cherry, he entertained at night. Don sang, Payne played the harmonica in a rock band. Occasionally he said the wrong thing. Out of the blue he would turn to you in the locker room, looking all serious, and then say something with fake hillbilly teeth.
But there was substance to the man, too. Concentrated within him was a fierce competitive nature that he struggled to constrain, a hell’s stew that began to hold him back. It was not a unique problem for an athlete. How does one separate what is potent from what is poison? Payne turned to his faith for guidance and beginning in 1999 he set out to constrain those dark competitive impulses and he became the ideal combination of grace and grit. When he won the U.S. Open that year, his winning putt celebration included a warm reminder to the player he had just gutted, Phil Mickelson, that the nearing birth of Phil’s first child was more important than any major win. It said as much about the new Payne as the 20-foot putt he had just made.
A little more than four months later, on October 25, he died, along with five others, on an ill-fated private plane headed for Texas. His death was an eerie reminder of the loss of Tony Lema, who died similarly in the '60s and of the words of Walter Hagen, that we are only here for a short time so we should all stop and smell the roses. The Payne Stewart Award given annually to those who possess a generosity of spirit reminiscent of Payne, is also a reminder that a thousand little acts of self-discipline are the path to a great life, which as Payne showed us, was the best way of compensating for the brevity of life.
7. Annika Sorenstam Playing a PGA Tour Event
The curiosity that a woman dominating her sport might be able to compete with the men is nothing new. Jackie Mitchell struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a 1931 exhibition game and the great Babe Zaharias played in few PGA Tour events in 1945 making all the 36-hole cuts and finishing as high as 33rd in one of them. In 1973, 29-year-old Billie Jean King won all three sets and $100,000 against 55-year-old Bobby Riggs. So, when Annika won 19 times during the 2001 and 2002 LPGA seasons, there were rumors that she might be invited to play a men’s tour event.
In February of 2003, she accepted an invitation to play in Colonial in Ft. Worth, Texas. Stirring up controversy was the seventh-ranked player in the world, Vijay Singh, when he said that her playing was ridiculous and that she didn’t belong. There were a few other public grumblings from PGA Tour players, but they only worked to increase the hype of her appearance. What the critics failed to understand was that her playing wasn’t about breaking barriers, it was about her own personal quest to see how good she could become. It’s the same reason why women want to play Hamlet, to do things no one has ever done before, to stretch the limits of what one imagines as possible.
I played in the Colonial that week and had dinner with Annika on Tuesday, and was shocked to find out that she and her team had to arrange a decoy car to leave the house to put the frenzied media off her track, to provide any respite from the maelstrom of reporters. She endeared herself to the golfing world when she feigned collapsing after her opening tee shot and after her warm smile when she made her first birdie. She managed to beat a few major champions that week but she missed the cut with rounds of 71 and 74. Ardent golf fans may not be able to tell you the specific years of Annika’s biggest victories or even who won the Colonial in 2003, but they can tell you what she was wearing that week, who she was paired with and what she shot.
8. Phil Mickelson Wins First Major
Phil Mickelson had won a Tour event as collar-popping, incandescently talented college kid who played the game as if he had a pocketful of get-out-of-jail-free cards. If there was something a foot high that he could step over, he would look around for something 6 feet high that he could jump over. Taking big risks didn’t seem to keep him from winning regular events though and the major wins seemed inevitable.
And then the unexpected happened: Tiger Woods.
Nobody could have predicted a player coming along so unimaginably talented that the next best players would be left to fend for the scraps. Right in Mickelson’s prime, from the 1997 Masters to the 2002 U.S. Open, eight of the 22 majors he played in, went to Woods, leaving little more than a couple a year up for grabs.
Two things happened from 2002-04 though, that helped increase the odds for Phil. First, Tiger decided to abandon the form that made him so dominant and changed his swing. The downturn in his game as he retooled, allowed the next best to shine. Ernie Els won The Open in 2003, and Vijay Singh won nine times in 2004. Second, the prevalence of the multi-layered, solid core golf ball meant that everyone in golf was much longer, and as dispersion rates go, much more inaccurate. That set the stage for Phil to finally win a major.
Tiger was distracted with swing thoughts and even the straightest of hitters were finding themselves in the rough far too often. They could beat Phil from the fairway, as Payne Stewart and David Toms demonstrated, but out of the rough was another story. Phil lived there. He shined there. No surprise then that when the 2004 Masters came around, and Tiger was nowhere to be found on the leaderboard, it came down to Mickelson and Els. Phil’s 18-footer to win by one at the last, was punctuated by the great call by Jim Nantz who said as the ball was inching toward the hole, “Is it his time?!”
It was. Finally.
9. Ben Crenshaw's Poignant '95 Masters Win
Before the 1995 Masters began on Thursday, no one could have dreamed into existence what would take place as the sun was setting four days later. Ben Crenshaw had missed three of his last four cuts and hadn’t broken 70 in 15 rounds. On Monday of Masters week, his lifelong coach and mentor, Harvey Penick died, and he flew home to be a pallbearer at his funeral on Wednesday, making it back to Augusta later that night. Ben Crenshaw, it was written when he was just beginning his professional career, had Jack Nicklaus’ talent and Arnold Palmer’s charm. It could have just as easily been written that he had Bobby Jones’ sense of history and respect for the traditions of the game. Jones, of course, was the co-founder of Augusta National and the Masters.
Crenshaw didn’t turn out to be as good as Nicklaus, but in many other ways he was too good to be true. He didn’t just study the history of the game, he embodied all that was good and great about the game. He was a gentleman. He was also 43 years old in '95. From 1968-94, there had been 108 majors played and only five had been won by players who had been 43 or older. Mathematically, that gave Crenshaw a little less than a 5% chance to win. Before he had left for the funeral, though, his longtime caddie, Carl Jackson, had given Ben a little tip about his ball position and as the tournament wore on, the good shots began to look less like happy accidents and more like minor miracles.
Sporting miracles confuse people, such that they say the events must have been fate, but the sum total of many little things, is not little. The combination of Carl’s tip, Ben’s knowledge of the course and his still magical touch on the greens was enough to explain away a good finish, but emotionally Ben had found that calm place, where poetry comes from. When he putted out on the 18th hole, to win by one, the grief of losing Penick, the stress of winning a major championship, and the historical reverence and importance of a Masters win, drained out of him and doubled him over. Carl Jackson, as if a surrogate for the entire golf world, comforted him, in what is, one of the most indelibly enduring images in the history of golf.
10. Tom Watson Almost Wins the 2009 Open
In 1867, Old Tom Morris, then 46, became the oldest winner of The Open Championship. That record was intact 112 years later, and only Julius Boros had won another major (1968 PGA) at an older age (48). The physiological decline in athletes – though the exact age is debatable – is certainly evident in golf when a player hits their late-30s. It occurs even earlier in other sports, which makes aged accomplishment all-the-more impressive. Gordie Howe played a full season in the NHL when he was 51; George Forman won boxing’s heavyweight title he was 45; and in the 2008 Summer Olympics, 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres won three silver medals. Pitcher Satchel Paige, who wasn’t drafted into the major leagues until he was 42, famously mused, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
Apparently in 2009, Tom Watson thought he was 33 years old and it was 1983 again. That year he won his fifth Open Championship, which surprisingly turned out to be the last of his eight major victories. His 39th and final PGA Tour title came in 1998. So, 11 years thereafter, Watson wasn’t just an afterthought on the regular tour, he was past his prime on the senior circuit. There was a moment, in the 2003 U.S. Open, that Watson turned back the clock. Five months after his longtime caddie Bruce Edwards was diagnosed with ALS, Watson shot 65 at Olympia Fields. And then the clock struck midnight as Watson tied for 28th.
As the years went by, Watson would make just three more cuts in majors. Then came the 2009 Open. Watson once again opened a major with a 65 and was tied for second place. He followed that with rounds of 70-71 and led outright entering the final round. Asked if he was nervous, Watson said, after thinking for a moment, “serene” is the right for it. Surreal was more appropriate. Watson wasn’t just on the verge of shattering a record. This wasn’t Bob Beamon jumping 21 2/3 inches longer than anyone ever had; this was Beamon jumping from Mexico City to Puerto Vallarta. Watson was doing the impossible. The unimaginable.
When he came to the 72nd hole on Sunday, Watson maintained a one-shot lead, just as he had at Turnberry in 1977 against Jack Nicklaus, in what many believe is golf’s most legendary duel. That day, Watson rifled an iron at the finishing hole to a couple of feet away. This day, he once again struck his approach shot perfectly, with a puff of dirt flying through the air as evidence. His ball should have nestled near where it did in ’77, but somehow it kept rolling and rolling, past the hole and off the back of the green. After a testy putt from the rough ran 10 feet past the hole, Watson, for the first time all week, looked like an AARP member. His par putt to win never had a chance. Watson eventually lost a four-hole aggregate playoff to Stewart Cink. More than a decade has passed, and I still cannot believe that a man almost 60 years old wasn’t beaten in 72 holes at a major championship. There is an exquisite agony there that the game of golf still endures … and enjoys.