Payne Stewart: The life of the party

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This story originally ran in the June 10, 2000 issue Golfweek.

Payne Stewart made his friends laugh. His memory still does. He was a two-time U.S. Open champion. He was husband and father. He was conspicuous by attire. But mainly he was the life of the party.

Sixteen months after he won at Pebble Beach, a year after his second Open title, almost eight months after his death in a bizarre airplane crash, recollections of his fun and games roll on.

• • •

The man in the Tap Room at Pebble Beach in May 1992 doesn’t believe his friends. So out of curiosity he approaches a blond-haired man in the bar area and starts talking.

“They told me you’re Payne Stewart, but I don’t believe it,” the man says, referring to the defending U.S. Open champion. “You don’t look like him.”

The blond-haired man doesn’t miss a beat. “If I go get the U.S. Open trophy and prove I’m Payne Stewart,” he says, “will you fill it with whatever I’m drinking?”

The man agrees, and minutes later Payne Stewart walks back in with the trophy and informs that his drink of choice is Cristal champagne. And so Stewart, there for Open media day, and old and new friends pour several bottles of the expensive bubbly into the trophy and drink it up.

Be careful what you dare for.

Around midnight, Stewart and his instructor, Chuck Cook, are heading to their rooms for the night when they decide to detour to the 18th green at Pebble Beach. They sit by the seawall and talk for more than an hour. Fearful the trophy might fall into the bay, they twist it securely into the sand.

That summer, Tom Kite wins the Open at Pebble and notices something unusual about the champion’s ornament. “I’m surprised how scratched the trophy is on the bottom,” Kite says to Cook.

Jake Trout and the Flounders are on stage in Orlando. They are performing in a concert televised live from The Golf Channel studios. They are trotting out songs from their new 1997 album. They are professional golfers – Peter Jacobsen, Payne Stewart and Mark Lye – backed up by the Blues Brothers band.

Stewart’s role in this production is, as usual, to play harmonica, period. He is not a singer, on key anyway. But he loves a stage, and on this night he decides to improvise and share his vocal cords with America.

Stewart breaks away from the rehearsed plan, jumps into the middle of a song and sings and sings and sings. Others on stage are surprised. Down in the front row of the audience, his wife, Tracey, is more like mortified.

“Payne, quit singing!” she yells out, holding her hands up to get his attention. “Quit singing! You’re flat! Payne, you’re flat!”

At one point, the warbling harmonica player shouts back to his bride, “Tracey, will you shut up! I’m having a good time!”

• • •

photo

Payne Stewart sits on Mark O'Meara's lap September 21, 1999 three days before the start of the Ryder Cup at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

Mark O’Meara walks onto the practice tee at the 1997 Masters, and Payne Stewart is ready with a tale of woe.

“Man, what a night I had,” Stewart says in a serious manner, bearing teeth that appear rearranged.

“What happened?” a stunned O’Meara asks.

Stewart explains that a stranger had said some inappropriate things and an argument ensued.

“Next thing you know the guy smokes me in the mouth,” Stewart says.

“Wow,” a wide-eyed O’Meara said. “But how come there’s no bleeding.”

Prank accomplished, Stewart moves the ugly fake teeth up and down with his tongue and smiles.

• • •

Italian restaurant, Montreal, 1997 Bell Canadian Open. Payne Stewart is high on life at dinner. He’s being treated like a celebrity, and he’s relaxed with longtime close friend Lamar Haynes, his former roommate and teammate at Southern Methodist University.

Then Nicolas Cage, the sleepy-eyed actor, walks in and sits two tables away. Haynes can’t resist using one of Stewart’s favorite instruments, the needle.

“You’ve now moved to No. 2 in the house,” Haynes says.

“Shut up and eat your food,” Stewart says.

A couple of days later, though, Stewart is No. 1 all Sunday night at Ziggy’s, a downtown Montreal bar he had visited much of the week. He had tied for eighth that day and has had just enough to drink to turn the place into his own playground. He has the music turned up. He clears room for a makeshift dance floor, soloing to bluegrass music with his versions of clogging and tap-dancing.

Then he decides it’s his turn to tend bar. So he hops behind the bar and pours drinks for about 45 minutes. Mainly he pours shots. “Drink up everybody,” he shouts.

Only problem is, Stewart doesn’t charge the customers. The proprietor takes note.

“You want me to charge them?” Stewart says playfully.

“How am I supposed to make money if you’re giving drinks away free?” Ziggy says.

Stewart later pays Ziggy enough to cover the tab.

“It was his world,” Haynes recalls, “and we were just visitors in it that night.”

• • •

Another U.S. Open victory, another night of drinking champagne out of the trophy. Payne Stewart wins the 1999 Open at Pinehurst, N.C., and heads up 75 miles to Mebane to spend the night at the home of Mike Hicks, his caddie of 12 years. As one might expect, they travel in style. A Hicks neighbor, state patrolman Bobby Culler, provides a police escort on a trip interrupted only by a pit stop at a convenience store in Siler City.

photo

The Stewarts – Tracey, Payne and 5-year-old Chelsea – with the 1991 U.S. Open trophy.

When Stewart puts a 12-pack of beer on the counter, the police officer asks the female clerk, “Aren’t you going to ask this guy for an ID?”

“No, he looks old enough,” she says.

“This man,” the officer tells her with a serious look, “just committed the biggest robbery in the history of the state.”

“What did he do?” she asks. “What did he do?”

“He just won the U.S. Open,” the cop says.

With that, they drive off, arrive at Hicks’ around midnight and drink champagne out of the Open trophy with about 15 people. By 4:30 a.m., only Stewart and Hicks are still up. They are sitting at Hicks’ kitchen table and they are talking proudly of how Stewart had held off the likes of Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and David Duval.

“Hicksie, I got ’em,” the exhausted national champion says as the celebration nears an end. “I got the kids. I got all the young guns.”

• • •

Another year, another country, another bar, another Payne Stewart stage. It’s past midnight last July, and about 400 red-faced locals are packed into a pub in Waterville, Ireland. The newly crowned U.S. Open champion is there among them, singing and playing his harp. The next thing anyone knows, he jumps behind the counter for a 30-minute shift as guest barkeep.

Once again, he forgets one key part of the job.

“Payne, you have to charge these people for drinks,” caddie Hicks says when noticing no money is changing hands.

“Drinks are on me!” Stewart yells back.

Later, Stewart pays the manager about £200 to cover the estimated bill.

By the time he leaves town, Stewart tells people he wants to be the mayor of Waterville. Locals inform him that being captain of the Waterville Golf Club is a bigger deal than being mayor.

And so it happens that, in time, Waterville members give Payne Stewart more than his wish. They make the party boy from Missouri captain of their club.

• • •

The 1999 baseball season is winding down in September, the Seattle Mariners are in Tampa to play the Devil Rays, and Ken Griffey Jr. picks a bad day to have one of the worst games of his Hall of Fame career.

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That’s because Payne Stewart, obnoxious and well-oiled fan, happens to be in the yard.

Griffey had secured choice tickets behind the Mariners’ dugout for his pals from Orlando, PGA Tour players Mark O’Meara, John Cook and Stewart. As the game progresses, Griffey learns that Stewart is nothing if not a raving bench jockey.

Griffey strikes out, and Stewart rides him unmercifully. “Griffey, you stink,” he yells as the baseball star walks back to the dugout.

Griffey strikes out again, and Stewart pours on more. “You suck, Junior,” he screams. Every time Griffey enters or leaves the dugout, Stewart insults him like New Yorkers might John Rocker.

But that isn’t enough. Stewart decides to take his act to the outfield bleachers. When Griffey returns to center field after getting tagged out in a rundown between first and second bases, Stewart is waiting with some more loud theatrics.

“Hey, Junior, does this look familiar?” Stewart, in the first row of the bleachers, shouts to Griffey on the field.

As Griffey watches, Stewart runs back and forth down the row several times, acting like he’s in a rundown. Then he slides down in the muck and beer on the ground, gets up and, while making an umpire’s thumb signal, yells, “Griffey, you’re outta here!”

Griffey shakes his head and smiles. The second base umpire is less amused. “You out there,” he calls out to the animated U.S. Open champion. “If you don’t be quiet, you’re outta here.”

• • •

The United States snatches the Ryder Cup away from Europe on a thrilling Sunday afternoon in September. The celebrating, you may recall, begins on the 17th green. Back in the U.S. team room at the hotel, the frolic goes on late into the night.

Payne Stewart is standing on a table, once again the center of attention. He is wearing an orange T-shirt and black sweatpants highlighted by red and orange chili peppers. He has a cigar in his mouth and a drink in his hand. He is the poster boy of a happy party.

“It was right before Tracey had to escort him off to bed,” teammate Steve Pate recalls, laughing.

The PGA of America has sent U.S. team members that Stewart photograph. Phil Mickelson, for one, has it framed on a wall at home. Pate doesn’t wonder why.

“It’s the best picture I’ve ever seen,” Pate says. “It’s the perfect picture of him.”

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