As U.S. Open venues go, few stand as tall as Pinehurst Resort’s famed No. 2, a Donald Ross masterpiece that winds like green ribbon through the tall Carolina pines. Strolling the grounds, you practically can close your fist and clench the 100-plus years of golf history that stir the gentle breezes, eliciting black-and-white images from Jones to Hogan to Palmer.
It’s U.S. Open time, an exciting time. And yet something is missing.
And someone will be missed.
Payne Stewart’s absence at the 105th U.S. Open once again unbuttons small holes in the heart we had hoped would have healed by now. Last time at Pinehurst, this was his stage. Last we saw him here, his jaw was locked open in elation on the 72nd green, his right fist bound for the sky. He’s gone now, still an unfathomable thought, replaced by a handful of memories and a bronzed statue of his likeness outside the clubhouse.
“Payne would have loved that statue,” says his good friend, Peter Jacobson. “He would have sat on that statue with a pitcher of margaritas telling everybody who walked by, ‘That’s me.’ ”
He probably would have. At 42, Stewart left behind a family that is empty without him, and a game that sorely could use his kinetic persona.
A return to Pinehurst marks an opportunity to remember the man for his accomplishments and contributions – and not for a tragic autumn day nearly six years ago when the plane in which he was traveling flew so horrifically out of control, killing him and five others.
Here’s to remembering the man.
“It’s nice to have tournaments that you can remember him, and tell the story again,” says Davis Love III. “People ask me about my dad (Davis Love Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1988). Well, I think about my dad every day. I’m sure the Stewarts think about Payne every day, and players like me think about him a lot. It’s nice that the fans will have a week of Payne Stewart talk.”
For those close to him, something every week, and often every day, conjures images of Stewart. Mike Hicks, a close friend of Stewart’s who caddied for him from 1988 to ’99, now works for Lee Janzen, the two-time U.S. Open champion who lived close to Stewart in Orlando, Fla. Janzen is a friend of Dr. Dick Coop, who worked with Stewart. The three will be standing on a practice tee somewhere – anywhere – when something funny will happen, or an amusing line is spoken, and like clockwork, all three silently will pause and think of Stewart. He always enjoyed such light moments more than most.
“I see Aaron (Payne’s son, now 16) practically every day at my course when I’m home,” says Janzen. “So it’s hard for me not to think about Payne.”
Janzen is the man who wrested both of his U.S. Open titles out of the hands of Stewart. Many forget Stewart also led the Open with a few holes to play at Shinnecock in 1986. In fact, Stewart had more 18-, 36- and 54-hole leads (11) than anybody else in Open history. Janzen edged his neighbor in 1993 at Baltusrol and again in ’98 at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. At Olympic, Stewart had a four-stroke lead on that final day, one in which Janzen lodged a tee shot in a tree, only to watch it miraculously fall to earth en route to an incredible closing round of 68.
In defeat that day, Stewart showed great class, a sign of his maturity. At 41, realistically, it could have been the last time he contended in the Open. Little did we know how he’d rebound a year later.
He showed the heart of a lion on the final day at Pinehurst, where a thick mist hung like a heavy blanket. He faced a downhill 25-foot putt for par at the treacherous 489-yard 16th, and most who were watching thought he would do well to make bogey; instead of lagging, he put pace on the putt, knowing it was the only way it would have a chance. It fell. On 17, he hit a 6-iron to 4 feet and made birdie for the lead. And on 18, after pitching out of the thick hay, he wedged to 15 feet, at least giving himself a chance. Adhering to a putting tip imparted the night before by his wife, Tracey, he kept his head still, and never looked up until his ball was 2 feet from glory. How hard had Stewart fought? He hit seven greens and shot 70.
“I’m proud of him,” Hicks would say that evening. “He’s a true champion.”
Janzen remembers Stewart on Sunday at Pinehurst, too, but it was the Sunday prior to the tournament’s start. Stewart had missed the cut in Memphis, and arrived in North Carolina early. As Janzen glanced over to an adjacent fairway during a practice round, there was Stewart, carrying just a wedge and a putter with him.
“There was a peacefulness about him,” Janzen said. “I thought that was real interesting. I’ll never forget that.”
Those around the Tour at the turn of the century no doubt harbor their own special memories of Stewart. As flashy as he appeared on the golf course (“If we are birds on the PGA Tour,” said Paul Azinger, “Payne was like a peacock”) Stewart also blended well sitting at the bar at, say, Callaway Gardens, Ga., wearing jeans and a T-shirt, savoring a cold beer.
He had enough good times to last nine lives. Janzen remembers joining Stewart in a late-season skins game in Taiwan in ’93. Janzen was Open champion; Stewart was the show. Late one night, Stewart left a hotel bar to retrieve his harmonica, but he was back 10 minutes later. “Lee,” he said, “I can’t find the elevator.” Before long Payne was behind the bar, mixing drinks for everyone, having a big time.
“That was Payne,” says Janzen. “He was the life of the party. Always.”
Some of his friends are worried Stewart’s memory may flicker out when the Tour leaves Pinehurst. That people won’t remember what a great player he was, winning three majors. At a Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast the morning before last week’s Memorial, Zach Johnson was asked if there’s anyone he regrets never meeting.
“Payne Stewart,” he answered.
Let’s hope somebody remembers to tell Johnson all he missed.