Stewart lived, played with passion, emotion

Payne Stewart celebrates after winning the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.

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This story originally ran in the Oct. 30, 1999 issue of Golfweek.

Moments after commandeering the U.S. Open last June by wielding his putter like a sword, Payne Stewart wanted to buy champagne for the house. This was the way the dashing Tony Lema used to do it.

When it came to the Ryder Cup, Stewart always was passionate and didn’t mind breathing his patriotic fire in public, which probably made him the closest thing to Knute Rockne the Americans had on their victorious Ryder Cup side last month.

Stewart was an inarguably handsome man who learned from his father how to turn women’s heads with the right combination of style and looks. In this respect alone, he was not unlike John F. Kennedy Jr.

Stewart could be distant and he could be impatient. His gifts for his craft were often largely unappreciated. These were traits he shared with Roberto Clemente.

Away from golf, Stewart recently had completed a graceful transition from party animal to doting father and caring husband. But until the tragic end, he was still a Missouri country boy at heart with an unmistakable Ozark twang, a love of rock ’n’ roll and an insatiable appetite for anything with a beat. Buddy Holly of Lubbock, Texas, had grown up with the same hunger.

Oct. 25, 1999 was the day the music died for 42-year-old William Payne Stewart.

Like Lema, Rockne, Clemente, Holly and JFK Jr. before him, Payne Stewart perished in a plane.

Like all of them, he was vital to the end and gone way too soon.

“He seemed to be really enjoying life,” said Masters champion José Maria Olazábal sadly.

Soon after departing from Orlando, Fla., the Lear 35 jet apparently experienced deadly cabin pressure difficulties, officials said. Aviation experts speculate that Stewart and the other five passengers aboard died of hypoxia or oxygen deficiency long before their twin-engine aircraft plunged into a grassy field on an unseasonably mild afternoon near Mina, S.D.

One local eyewitness described the Lear 35 as “falling like a rag” out of the sky. Said another:

It “pretty much nosed straight into the ground.” An Air Force spokesman later said the ghost ship had continued blindly on automatic pilot hundreds of miles off course before running out of fuel over Mina.

Stewart’s flight was supposed to land in Dallas. Two of the other victims – Robert Fraley and Van Ardan – ran Leader Enterprises Inc. and represented Stewart as his agents. From Dallas, Stewart was scheduled to travel to Houston for the Tour Championship. Within minutes of the confirmation of his death, a blue ribbon appeared on the nameplate marking his space in the players’ parking lot at host Champions Golf Club.

Stewart was the professional golfer who could put on a pair of jeans and a baseball cap and stroll unnoticed through the malls of America. But stick him on a golf course with that Hogan-style cap and the sporty plus fours, and everybody knew who he was. When singer Michael Jackson showed up to look at the Stewarts’ Florida house after it went on the market last year, he had no idea who the owner was until somebody told him Stewart was the technicolor golfer with the knickers. Oh yeah, the moonwalker said, I know this guy.

People who played the game, at all levels, recognized other elements of Stewart’s style. “It’s hard to believe we’re not gonna watch that effortless swing anymore,” Ben Crenshaw said. “It was a thing to envy . . . or a thing to marvel.”

It is the smallest of consolations that we are not going to have to watch Stewart age. We always will remember the mischief that danced guiltily around the edges of his clear, bright, young prankster eyes even when his smile was insisting his intentions were innocent. Thankfully, we will never see him riding a cart, or carrying a paunch or staying too long at the arthritic dance that golf can become.

But Tracey Stewart, the native Australian Payne had met in Kuala Lumpur while he was playing the Asian Tour, wanted to grow old with her husband. Payne’s 13-year-old daughter, Chelsea, and his 10-year-old son, Aaron, wanted to grow up for their father. His mother, Bee, hadn’t dreamed of outliving her son. No parent does.

Stewart’s father, a traveling salesman, died in 1985 after a bout with cancer. And on the Sunday morning of last June’s U.S. Open triumph at Pinehurst, Tracey emerged from the bedroom after a shower to find her husband having a good cry in front of the television screen. He had just watched an NBC Father’s Day special piece on his relationship with his father.

“His father’s death was very hard for Payne,” she said later that day. “It still is.”

Bill Stewart liked to party and dance and dress in outfits that made him look more like an embarrassed zebra than a clothes horse. Bee Stewart, meanwhile, would eventually battle alcoholism. In recent years Stewart talked openly about his increasing awareness of his parents’ struggles. He embraced religion and he credited his faith for keeping his golf in perspective.

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Payne Stewart after sinking his winning par putt on the 18th hole at Pinehurst during the final round of the 1999 US. Open.

“I’m a lot older and a lot wiser,” Stewart had said after winning the abbreviated AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February. “I’m more mature. I’m not going to blink and miss my family growing up.”

Later that Father’s Day at Pinehurst he went out and one-putted the last three greens to beat Phil Mickelson by a shot. When he teed off on the 72nd hole, the chimes at the nearby Pinehurst Village Chapel were softly and serendipitously playing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

“He’s an inspiring guy,” Ryder Cup teammate Justin Leonard said of Stewart.

In 1991, Stewart had beaten Scott Simpson in a playoff at Hazeltine National near Minneapolis to win his first U.S. Open. Two years before that he had reeled in Mike Reid and won the 1989 PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes near Chicago. Only two players under age 50 – Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros – have won more majors than Stewart.

“It is difficult to express our sense of shock and sadness over the death of Payne Stewart,” said PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. “He will be sorely missed and, in many ways, he is irreplaceable.”

U.S. Golf Association president Buzz Taylor called Stewart a “good example of what golfers should be all about.”

“He leaves a lasting impression,” said Leonard, “on a lot of people.”

At the time of his death Stewart ranked third on the 1999 money list with $2,077,950 and third on the career money list with $11,737,008. He is currently the eighth-ranked player in the world.

Born in Springfield, Mo., Stewart attended Southern Methodist University and joined the PGA Tour in 1981. Prior to this season he had gone eight years with just one victory. It was a horrible slump for a player of his talents. And it left him surly much of the time. The turnaround began in 1998, when he lost a large lead on the final day of the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. After finishing second to Lee Janzen, he was gracious in defeat. This was a kinder, gentler Stewart.

“Don’t give up on me, boys,” he told reporters that day.

Stewart wasn’t the best, the funniest, the richest, the nicest, the smartest or the coolest golfer on the planet. But no other player had more style. And few knew how much substance he possessed.

His passing has left an emptiness at the core of his sport. Stewart was an original. And it is for that reason that his memory will never fade to black. 

He just had too much color.

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