PINEHURST, N.C. — Aaron Stewart walked onto the 18th green at Pinehurst’s No. 2 course on Monday and allowed himself a peek at the imposing figure standing near the clubhouse.
Yes, his dad was watching.
The late Payne Stewart still casts a long shadow at Pinehurst — both physically, a statue of the first U.S. Open champion crowned at No. 2 looms larger than life just off the 18th, and figuratively.
Now, almost exactly a decade after the last pro victory of Stewart’s career, it’s up to his 20-year-old son to carry on that legacy when he plays his first tournament at the famous course, this week’s North and South Amateur.
“A lot of people talk about, ‘It’s been 10 years,’ (and) if this is going to be particularly hard because it’s been 10 years,” Aaron Stewart said. “Anybody that’s lost someone who has been such a big part of their lives, you think about that person every day. So it’s not like 10 years is going to be any different than seven years or something like that. It’s still going to be another day when you’re thinking about him.”
The younger Stewart, who’s entering his redshirt sophomore season at SMU, is making a rare trip to the course in south-central North Carolina where his father’s second U.S. Open title came four months before his untimely death in an airplane accident.
Aaron Stewart, a 10-year-old at that time, didn’t develop a serious interest in golf until he was in high school. He visited Pinehurst last month for the first time since the statue was dedicated in 2001. He played 18 holes at No. 2 for the first time Monday.
“Our family has always thought very highly of the people here and Pinehurst overall, so when I found out about the North and South, I thought if I could get in, it’d be a lot of fun to play,” Stewart said.
A quick glance at the younger Stewart and it’s obvious who his father is — minus, of course, the tam-o’-shanters and plus-fours that became trademarks of Payne’s during his nearly two-decade pro career.
But they’re sharing more than just facial features this week. Aaron’s caddie, Mike Hicks, also carried the clubs for his father during his victory in the 1999 Open. And Aaron brought his father’s yardage book from that tournament.
“The mannerisms and the way he conducts himself, there’s a few things that remind me a lot of his dad,” Hicks said.
A successful week at the North and South and the Stewarts will have matching tournament victories at No. 2, though Aaron Stewart faces a daunting path through two days of stroke play just to qualify for the match-play portion.
Then again, he didn’t rule out mimicking the fist-pumping pose struck by his father after his 15-foot putt sealed the Open victory, immortalized in the statue by the 18th green.
“There’s hopes and desires and dreams, but it’d be awesome” to win at Pinehurst, Stewart said. “I can’t think of a better caddie to have on the bag, so it would be really special. I’m just going to go out (Tuesday) and play my best, and whatever happens from there, keep focusing on that and not think about the outcome. Stay present.”
Someday, Aaron Stewart wants to follow his father into professional golf. But as proud as he is to be Payne Stewart’s son, he also is eager to create his own identity.
“I’m very happy to have (the Stewart last name) and I’m very proud of my name, and I do want to be known as my own player,” Stewart said. “But that will come in time.”