Payne Stewart not only made an impression on his family and friends, but on the golf media. Our senior writers and editors who knew him best recount some of their favorite Stewart stories.
Jeff Babineau, Golfweek editor:
When I left the NFL beat to cover golf while at The Orlando Sentinel in the mid-1990s, someone who once had the job told me the toughest “local” in town I’d have to deal with would be Payne Stewart. I’d find quite the opposite to be true.
Stewart was interesting, engaging, entertaining and friendly and he usually would give ample time to talk about the game he cared about so much. I can remember covering the Disney tournament in 1996, when a rookie by the name of Tiger Woods had begun tearing up the PGA Tour. Woods was clearly the hot story day after day, but a month into his pro career, many veteran players had grown weary and resentful over having to answer incessant questions about this kid.
Not Stewart. On a day when I’d been blown off several times, he leaned against a wall outside the locker room one afternoon before the tournament and said he’d talk about Woods all day. “That guy,” he said, “is going to be good for my business.” He was right. Later that week, in one of the better one-on-one Sunday matchups I’ve ever witnessed, Woods shot 66 on the Mag to Stewart’s 67 to win by a shot.
Three years later, shockingly, Disney would prove to be Stewart’s final tournament. I remember talking to him early in the week about improvements and adjustments he had made in his game that season, when he’d won twice, including his second U.S. Open. He didn’t play very well that week at Disney, and on Friday he missed the cut.
It turned out to be a blessing. A day later, I ran into Stewart while at Dr. Phillips High School to watch my oldest son play a Pop Warner football game. Payne’s son, Aaron, was playing for Dr. Phillips. I can picture Payne as if it were yesterday. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans and a blue SMU cap, in his full glory all riled up talking about his son’s position change that week. It was the last time I’d see him.
Two days later, I was in the Golfweek offices when a call came in that there was a private jet in distress, and that a prominent PGA Tour player was on board. We quickly flipped on CNN. The caller told me he thought it was Lee Janzen, an old college buddy of mine. So I called Janzen’s cell phone, hoping the news wasn’t true, and was relieved to hear his voice. And then he said these chilling words: “It’s Payne.”
The Tour lost a great ambassador that day. I often try to think how proud he’d be to see how Tracey and his children handled such a difficult situation with incredible grace.
Ten years. Wow. Hard to believe.
Jim McCabe, senior writer: There is a lasting image of Payne Stewart, but it comes without the trademark knickers and cap. Instead, he is wearing shorts and a baseball hat.
Oh, and a smile.
He is definitely wearing a smile.
It was early July in 1999, only a few weeks removed from his stunning U.S. Open triumph at Pinehurst, a win that sealed his Ryder Cup spot, so Stewart had come up to The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., to tour the course that would host the biennial affair two months later.
Accompanied in this casual round by the late and great sports columnist Will McDonough – a sort of godfather figure to many of us at the Boston Globe – the day was filled with brilliantly fluid swings (Stewart’s) and stinging barbs (McDonough’s). The two of them shared the same agent, Bob Fraley, and for more than four hours they shared great laughs, too.
It was fun to watch parts of it, to observe Stewart in a setting so different than Pinehurst, where I had last seen him.
When the round was complete, Stewart retired to a casual corner of the men’s locker room, which probably doesn’t look much different than it did when Francis Ouimet won the U.S. Open at TCC 86 years earlier. Stewart remarked on that, too, and said it pleased him greatly that there were precious places like The Country Club, where history and tradition were revered, not torn down.
Stewart answered questions from a few reporters about his Pinehurst triumph and the upcoming Ryder Cup. Winning a third major championship was satisfying, he said, but having missed out on the 1995 and 1997 Ryder Cups, it was clear that he felt more proud of his return to this competition.
What stays with me today, even 10 years later, is how Stewart seemed so at peace with where he was in his career and his life.
Rich Skyzinski, senior editor: As manager of media relations for the U.S. Golf Association, it was my responsibility at the U.S. Open to escort the champion through his various rounds of media interviews and press conferences after the trophy presentation.
In 1991, after Payne won in a Monday playoff at Hazeltine National Golf Club, outside Minneapolis, the two of us left the ceremony at the 18th green and Payne said he wanted to stop in the locker room before going to the press tent.
We went in the locker room, which, as I remember it, presented an expansive, cavernous atmosphere since it was dead quiet – completely empty except for the shoeshine attendant. Payne dropped into a big, comfortable easy chair, essentially to try to compose himself. He leaned forward, put his head in his hands and said to no one, “My God, I’ve won the U.S. Open.”
Just then, his daughter, Chelsea, who was only 5 at the time, walked in and went over to her dad. She stood in front of him and asked, “Did Daddy do good today?” As you would expect from any 5-year-old, the magnitude of the day was far beyond her comprehension.
Payne took her head in his hands and repeatedly caressed it so gently, trying to come up with the words that would explain the greatest accomplishment of his life to someone incapable of fully understanding. There was a long pause.
I stood along an opposite wall, wondering what he’d say.
He closed his eyes and drew Chelsea close for a long, loving embrace. “Yes, Daddy did good today,” he said. “Someday, you’ll understand just how good.”
I’ll never forget Chelsea’s innocence, or the pride Payne was unable to explain. But we both had to collect ourselves before leaving.
• • •
The following spring, Payne, as the defending champion, agreed to go to Pebble Beach and participate in U.S. Open Media Day.
He flew in the day before, and that night, Payne and I and five or six others met for dinner at the resort. I remember the group included Paul Spengler, the general chairman of the ’92 Open, and R.J. Harper, the head professional at Pebble Beach.
Payne asked if it would be OK if he ordered the wine, and I said that would be fine. As the representative of the U.S. Golf Association, which conducts the Open and pays for Media Day, certainly I was prepared to pay for dinner.
Payne selected a bottle of red and when I saw the price, $110, the first thing I said to myself was, “Great. I can’t wait to hear the reaction when someone sees my expense report and it includes, ‘Wine, $110.’ ” Later in the evening, Payne ordered a second bottle and eventually a third, and all the while I’m trying to concoct a scheme to avoid filing the most legendary expense report in USGA history.
We chatted and told stories for hours, and when it came time for me to finally face the moment of truth and get the bill from our waitress, she graciously whispered to me that everything had been taken care of.
Before the evening had gotten started, Payne already had paid for the whole thing.
Ron Balicki, senior writer: Like so many people, I have a lot of memories of Payne Stewart. It’s tough to forget his fashion statements, warm smile and wonderful sense of humor.
I will always remember watching him compete – and win. He was as fierce of a competitor as I’ve ever seen, as his 11 PGA Tour victories would attest.
I remember watching him win his first major championship – the 1989 PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes in Hawthorn Woods, Ill., and when he beat Scott Simpson in a playoff to win his first U.S. Open in 1991 at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minn.
I was there when he defeated Scott Hoch in a playoff to win the 1995 Shell Houston Open, and I remember what a force and inspirational leader he was in helping the United States win the Ryder Cup in 1991 at Kiawah Island and in 1993 at The Belfry.
But the two things I remember most about Stewart have nothing to do with his wardrobe or his high level of competition. They have to do with Payne Stewart as a person and as a father.
I don’t remember the year or even the facility (I think it was at Disney World), but I watched Stewart play an exhibition to raise money and awareness for the blind. It was a nine-hole event, and he played against a golfer who was blind (I believe it was Charlie Boswell). Stewart played those nine hole on equal terms – he was blindfolded the entire time. It was pretty neat.
The other lasting memory took place at the Tour Championship at Pinehurst in, it was either 1991 or ’92. It was the last week in October.
One evening during the week, a large group of players, officials, media and fans, was gathered at the Pine Crest Inn, enjoying a cocktail or two and having a fun-filled time.
Stewart was not among the gathering, but he did arrive. Dressed in street clothes, Stewart came through the front door with his two small children. They were dressed in costumes.
You see, it was Halloween and Stewart was taking his kids treat-or-treating. He took them around the Village of Pinehurst and they filled their sacks.
Yes, most will remember Stewart for winning a PGA, or two U.S. Opens, or his Ryder Cup performances. But what he did for charity and the way he loved his family showed just what a caring and wonderful human being he was outside the ropes.
Alistair Tait, senior writer: I got a first-hand view of why Payne Stewart was so popular with fans in my first year as a golf journalist. It was an illuminating insight into the different characteristics of two of the game’s then-superstars: Stewart and Nick Faldo.
In 1990, I asked Stewart for an interview on the practice ground during the Scottish Open at Gleneagles. Stewart agreed and asked me to meet him the following day after the pro-am.
I waited by the 18th green of the King’s Course the following day, and watched groups finish their rounds. Faldo was three groups ahead of Stewart.
When Faldo left the 18th green, a group of about 20 children were waiting for him, hoping he would sign autographs. Faldo ignored the children as he walked brusquely to the scoring hut.
The children followed and waited patiently outside the scorer’s hut. They started clamoring for Faldo’s autograph when he emerged from the hut. Faldo put his hands on his hips and looked at them with utter contempt. Then he raised his arm and pointed in the direction of the practice ground without speaking, and started walking that way.
He did sign autographs, but he did so as he strode to the practice ground without acknowledging any of the children.
The same group of children scurried back to wait for Stewart’s autograph. They got a friendlier reception.
When they started shouting for his autograph, Stewart said: “I’ll be right with you as soon as I sign my scorecard.”
True to his word, he emerged from the hut and signed everything put his way – magazines, programs, visors, balls, scraps of paper . . . everything. He patiently posed for pictures as proud parents snapped shots of their youngsters with one of the game’s most colorful characters.
After about 25 minutes, he finally turned to me and asked how I was doing.
Since it was a nice, warm day we sat by the edge of the putting green and he patiently answered every question I had about the life and times of William Payne Stewart. It was one of the most pleasurable interviews I’ve ever conducted.
More important, it highlighted the difference in approach between Faldo and Stewart. I remember thinking at the time that Stewart had made fans for life in those young children, while those same kids probably left Gleneagles feeling that the Englishman was the most miserable person they’d ever met.
While British golf fans respected Faldo for his achievements on the course, they were not lovers of his normally sullen demeanor off it. Stewart’s personality was the direct opposite. It’s no wonder many British golf fans – and at least one British golf writer – treasured him more than any other U.S. golfer.
James Achenbach, senior writer: On Oct. 25, 1999, I was in Portland, Ore. Early in the day, I received a phone call from Ely Callaway, founder of Callaway Golf.
Neither he nor I knew anything about Payne Stewart’s flight.
“Jim, I’m sitting here reading your column, and I want to discuss it with you,” Callaway said.
The subject was conforming clubs vs. nonconforming clubs. Callaway Golf had recently introduced the nonconforming ERC driver, which was earmarked for sale outside the United States.
I told Callaway I would listen as long as he wanted to talk.
“No, I want to speak face to face,” he responded. “How about if I send my jet to pick you up?”
He was so insistent that I agreed. The Callaway Lear jet, with two pilots aboard, flew up from Carlsbad, Calif., to retrieve me.
It was only when we were in the air that I heard about Stewart’s plane.
On the ground in Carlsbad, Callaway was apologetic. The great golf industry showman seemed dumbstruck at Stewart’s fate.
Those were the high-flying days of great excess in the golf industry, but I believe both Callaway and I ended up questioning the necessity of our little rendezvous.
We talked and ate lunch, then I headed back, two pilots at my beck and call and a million thoughts of Payne Stewart in my head.
Adam Schupak, senior writer: Understand this: Payne Stewart’s enduring popularity runs no boundaries. Traveling in Morocco, I strolled through Rabat’s medina, the ancient trading place, and alongside a memorial for the late King Hassan II, hung a picture of Stewart. Mind you, this was 2006, and it was one of many shrines I found there.
Stewart played in Morocco’s King Hassan II Trophee three times, winning twice and losing in a playoff. He believed that to be considered a world-class player, he had to play all over the world (Stewart played on every continent except Antarctica).
“Go anywhere in Morocco and they know Payne Stewart,” said Ali Bouasilla, the head pro at Rabat’s Royal Golf Dar Es-Salaam.
Bouasilla and Stewart became fast friends. I asked Bouasilla once to explain how Stewart became such a beloved figure to his countrymen. Was it his warm, contagious smile, his humility, his cool confidence?
“All of that and more,” Bouasilla answered. “To me, golf is not a sport; it is a religion. If we had a Jesus, then it was Payne Stewart.”
I might quibble with that, but there was the time Bouasilla claimed Stewart turned water into wine and spent the night “transcending cultural differences” at the King’s party until the wee hours of the morning.
“He told me I couldn’t go to bed,” Bouasilla remembered with a chuckle. “I had to be his alarm for his tee time.”
So when Stewart died, he was mourned in Morocco every bit as much as in the U.S. Bouasilla pays his own tribute. He organizes an annual tournament in Stewart’s honor called Two Friends.
Bradley S. Klein, senior writer: It’s easy to forget that Payne Stewart wasn’t the only one who died in that eerie aircraft accident a decade ago. Among the six who lost their lives that day was golf course architect Bruce Borland.
At the time, Borland was a senior associate with Nicklaus Design and on loan, so to speak, to Stewart, who was trying to get his feet wet in the design enterprise. The two previously scouted a site in Kentucky and, on Oct. 25, 1999, were heading to Frisco, Texas, to look at another prospective golf course project.
Borland, 40, a native of Peoria, Ill., was a 1981 graduate of the University of Florida and a member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. He had been well-established with the Nicklaus firm for nearly a decade, with responsibility for routing plans, design sketches and field supervision. Borland already had seen 13 Nicklaus projects he had worked on successfully open for play, chief among them two in South Carolina: the Colleton River-Nicklaus Course in Beaufort and The Golf Club at Indigo Run in Hilton Head.
Borland left behind seven other projects in various stages of design or construction. When the last of these – Porto Cima, in Lake Ozark, Mo. – opened for play, the Nicklaus organization paid thoughtful tribute to its lost colleague.
It was Sept. 18, 2000, and I was caddying for Nicklaus at the ceremonial first round. As we got to the final hole, Nicklaus paused and led the entire crowd – there must have been 400-500 people in attendance – in a moving little event that included dedication of a bridge in Borland’s memory. His widow, Kate, and their four children, ages 9-14, were on hand.
After all the hoopla and the celebration of the day, everyone stopped for a moment of silent prayer. It was a short, touching and memorable way to pay honor to a lost colleague. And it was a poignant reminder that when tragedy strikes and becomes big news, it’s not just celebrities who leave behind pained relatives and friends.