Orlando community comes to grips
This story originally ran in the Oct. 30, 1999 issue of Golfweek.
ORLANDO, Fla. – On a sun-splashed autumn afternoon before the start of the National Car Rental Golf Classic at Walt Disney World, Payne Stewart was standing on an uncrowded practice tee at the Magnolia Course, hitting golf balls and chatting idly with Paul Azinger, his close friend.
With three events still remaining in the PGA Tour season, Stewart found himself in a somewhat peculiar, though enviable, situation: He already had accomplished all his goals for 1999.
“Now I have to set some goals for me to reach in the next few weeks,” said the amiable Stewart, who was enjoying the most lucrative season of his 19-year Tour career, surpassing $2 million in earnings. “I have to have something to play for other than just the money. It’s a nice position to be in. If I didn’t play any more this year, it’s been a great year. But you might as well strike when the iron is hot.”
Sadly, and quite tragically, he never would get that opportunity.
Five days later, Stewart, the 42-year-old reigning U.S. Open champion, was dead after a Learjet in which he and five others were flying ran out of fuel and crashed into a marshy field in South Dakota. The jet originally was headed for Dallas. All passengers were believed dead hours before the aircraft descended.
The loss of Stewart leaves a devastating void in the PGA Tour family, in his adopted hometown of Orlando, where he had lived since 1982, and in Springfield, Mo. – the place his mother, Bee, said her son still called home. Fifteen months after it tried to cope with the tragic death of Renay Appleby – wife of PGA Tour player Stuart Appleby – the Orlando community and members of Isleworth Country Club were facing the tough task of pulling tightly together once more in an attempt to deal with yet another excruciating, difficult-to-fathom blow.
“Payne had a chance to do all these things – and now he’s gone,” said Lee Janzen, who, like Stewart, his friend and neighbor, twice won the U.S. Open. “It was too soon to go.”
Oct. 25 is a date few in the Orlando community will forget anytime soon. Family and friends, alerted to breaking news that contact had been lost with a chartered Learjet flying out of Orlando International Airport, monitored television reports and prayed, clinging to the smallest sliver of hope.
At Bay Hill, Janzen and several other pros cut short their rounds at a charity outing for the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Women, realizing something was askew. Janzen had received a call from a friend concerned about Janzen’s whereabouts, and his thoughts soon turned to his own traveling friend, Stewart. Others soon began to worry about Stewart, too.
“It sent shivers down my spine,” said Mark O’Meara. “I couldn’t believe it. . . . There are no words or rhyme or reason why these things happen. We’re just going to try to all pull together during this terrible tragedy.”
By early afternoon, several Tour players and their wives drove to Stewart’s gated residence southwest of the city to lend support to Tracey Stewart and the couple’s two children, who had been removed early from school. The Stewarts’ elaborate home – which has been up for sale and once was shown to singer Michael Jackson – sits back off a narrow, recently paved road less than a mile from the Bay Hill Club. At Bay Hill in 1987 Stewart donated his $108,000 winner’s check from the Hertz Bay Hill Classic to establish living quarters for the families of cancer patients at Florida Hospital North. The building is named the William J. Stewart House, after Payne’s late father, who died in 1985.
Stewart had built a strong reputation for his tireless charitable work in Orlando. Shortly after his U.S. Open triumph at Pinehurst in June, he donated $500,000 to The First Foundation, affiliated with First Baptist of Orlando Church. He also helped raise an extra $700,000 with a barbecue he staged. In return for his efforts, Stewart was honored by The First Foundation in mid-October with the group’s 1999 Legacy Award, accepting a beautiful glass sculpture of an eagle.
“We all have something in common,” Stewart told those gathered at a dinner honoring him Oct. 15. “We have dreams. The thing about dreams is sometimes you get to live ’em out. And I’ve always dreamt about playing golf for a living, and here I am, living out my dream, and it’s pretty special. . . . But what really excites me probably as much as winning is being able to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Stewart did that. And that’s why he’ll be so missed. At Orlando Arena hours after his death, Orlando Magic basketball players recognized Stewart with a moment of silence. At Orlando City Hall, people were talking about the loss of one of the community’s pillars. O’Meara, Janzen, Scott Hoch, Ernie Els, Frank Nobilo, Ian Baker-Finch and John Cook were among those paying condolences at the Stewarts’ home. And east of the city, not far from where Stewart’s jet had departed earlier that morning, the mood in the clubhouse at Lake Nona, where Stewart was a member, was starkly somber.
“We lost a good friend,” said Lake Nona member Tom Dyer, who, along with Stewart and several other Orlando-area pros, oversees an annual event to raise money for children’s charities. In five years, more than $500,000 had been raised. This coming March, Stewart’s name may become permanently attached to the tournament.
“To everybody else in the world, Payne was this big celebrity,” Dyer said. “Around here, to us, he was always just a regular guy.”
Which, to Stewart, would likely have been considered the ultimate compliment.