A champion remembered at Champions
This story originally ran in the Oct. 30, 1999 issue of Golfweek.
HOUSTON – The flags in front of Champions Golf Club clubhouse flew at half-staff. In the parking lot there were nameplates for each of the 30 players who would be competing in this year’s PGA Tour Championship.
A blue, bow-tied ribbon had been placed atop one of those plates – the one bearing the name Payne Stewart.
It was the Monday of Tour Championship week, a time when the mood is usually loose and festive. But on this Monday – Oct. 25 – it was anything but. All around Champions there was an atmosphere of quiet, heartfelt sorrow.
It came when word arrived that Stewart, who was to play in the Tour Championship as the No. 3 money winner, had been killed in a plane crash in South Dakota.
Suddenly everyone – from the handful of players who already had arrived, to tournament officials, volunteers and fans – spoke in hushed tones. The stunning news shocked all, especially many of the locals, who over the years became big fans of Stewart, the 1995 Shell Houston Open champion and participant in 13 of the last 17 Houston Opens.
“Right now I can’t describe the feeling I have,” said Eric Fredrickson, executive director of the Houston Golf Association and Shell Houston Open tournament chairman. “He won his first tournament when I was tournament director for the Disney (World Golf Classic in Orlando, Fla.) in 1983. We became good friends and that friendship has lasted and grown.
“Of all the players on Tour, I feel the closest to him. Now all you can do is reflect on the times you had and the memories that you will never lose. I feel he was on the verge of taking his game to still another level . . . and now he’s gone. It’s so hard to grasp right now.”
The few players on hand at the week’s start worked on their games at the practice range and putting green. It was obvious they were simply going through the motions – something to keep their minds occupied in a different direction.
It didn’t work. They felt the shock. They felt the sorrow. They felt the grief. The sudden realization that they had tragically lost one of their own hit them right between the eyes, and cut deeply into their hearts.
“He was one of the best,” said Duffy Waldorf. “It wasn’t just his wins. He brought a lot of himself to the game. You can’t replace Payne. There will never be another like him.”
Added Jeff Maggert, “Payne was liked by everybody, and so was his wife, Tracey. It will be a tough week for all the players and their wives.”
A few of the players didn’t want to say anything. They were in such a state of disbelief. Words, somehow, were hard to come by.
“You don’t know what to say at a time like this other than we’re all thinking of Tracey and the family,” said Jim Furyk. “You just can’t prepare for something like this. It leaves you with a very hollow feeling.”
Still, the tournament was expected to go on. Most agreed that would be what Stewart would have wanted. The Tour, however, canceled the Tuesday pro-am event at Champions as well as the skins game at the concurrent Southern Farm Bureau Classic in Madison, Miss.
“In light of the tragedy and in respect for Payne, we canceled those events,” said Henry Hughes, PGA Tour senior vice president of tournament business affairs/championship management. “The players made it clear to us they want to attend the (funeral) service, and we will do everything we can to make that possible. Our goal is to have this championship over 72 holes, but we’ve played 72 holes in less than four days before.
“A player of his stature and accomplishments . . . well, this is a tremendous loss to the game of golf.”
A memorial service for Stewart was scheduled for 11 a.m. EDT on Oct. 29 at First Baptist Church of Orlando, 3000 S. John Young Parkway. The PGA Tour had not announced any tournament schedule changes at press time.