Windermere, Fla. – Almost 10 years after the sudden and tragic death of her golf champion husband, Payne Stewart, Tracey Stewart says she thinks of him every day in all sorts of ways, often related to their two children. His memory still prompts occasional tears. She says she doesn’t believe time heals, because her hurt remains.
A native of Australia, Tracey Stewart is an elegant, private woman who possesses expressive eyes and a quick laugh. Those eyes sometimes get misty when the topic is her husband of 18 years, who at age 42 died in an airplane accident Oct. 25, 1999.
Stewart’s 11 PGA Tour victories included two U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship. Near the 10-year anniversary of his U.S. Open victory at Pinehurst, Tracey shared her thoughts on many topics during a rare interview. The recent talk took place in the office at her Isleworth home overlooking Lake Bessie, in a room decorated with Payne’s golf memorabilia and trophies.
How is your heart?
Fine. You do what you have to do. I don’t have a choice. You gotta go on. I get up and do what I have to do.
How dearly do you miss Payne?
They say time heals all wounds. I don’t believe that. Because it hasn’t healed my wound. I mean, the only thing that’s going to heal my heart is if Payne was here. He’s the only one who can fill that void. And I can’t have that, so I have to live with that.
But time helps?
Time makes it less real, I guess.
You cried every day for how long after the accident?
How did you move forward?
My children were a big force behind that because I had to be a mother. A mother and father, basically. That made me get up every day and do things. I did it for my kids. I decided to make raising my kids my focus. Now I’ve got one graduated and working (Chelsea, Clemson 2008) and the other in college (Aaron, redshirt sophomore golfer at SMU, Payne’s alma mater).
When you think of Payne, do you focus on the good times?
We had 18 years of marriage. It was wonderful. A lot of people don’t have that in a lifetime. I just had the best for a short time. I have to feel fortunate that I was able to have that time.
Have you dated or have any desire to do so?
No. What do you do after you’ve had a Rolls-Royce? (Laughs) I have never met anybody I’ve ever thought about it. A couple of times (people have asked me out). But nothing.
You cried a lot recently during a TV interview. What happened?
They were brutal. (The reporter) went through the whole ordeal, the day of the accident. It wasn’t fun. That’s why I hate interviews. Payne chose to be a professional golfer, and he loved the limelight. But I always liked to be in the background. Once this happened, I was forced to come out in the public eye when it wasn’t really what I wanted. I only did the things I thought I had to do for Payne. I’m a very private person. I’m not comfortable being in front of the camera.
What questions do you ask? Do you ask, “Why did this happen? Why me?”
Definitely. You always question. You go back and think, If I had done this differently, then maybe he wouldn’t have gone. Or wouldn’t have gone on that plane. I remember seeing the fax on Saturday night about the plane and I thought to myself, “Why are they going on that (chartered Learjet) plane? Why aren’t they going on Payne’s plane?” But he wasn’t in the room at the time and stuff was going on, and I never said anything. If I said to him, “Why aren’t you taking your plane?” he probably would’ve said, “You’re right.”
You kick yourself over that?
Yeah, there’s always questions about what happened and things you’d do differently. But you can’t do that. You just make yourself miserable.
You haven’t undergone any counseling. But your friends have helped?
Yes, they’ve been wonderful. They try to include me in things and try to make me feel comfortable. So I’m very fortunate. My (Catholic) faith has helped, too.
Have Tour players who live nearby at Isleworth helped Aaron with his game or you with your heart?
Not really. (Laughs) We’re friends. Guys don’t normally do that kind of thing. It’s hard for somebody who hasn’t been in a situation like this to really understand. It’s impossible to understand unless you’ve been there.
When you walked the second round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational this year, it was the first time you walked 18 holes on Tour since Payne died?
Yes. I walked with my friends Alana O’Hern (Nick’s wife) and Kate Rose (Justin’s wife). It was good. I got to see a lot of people I hadn’t seen a lot. I hadn’t done it before because it would’ve made me feel uncomfortable. It’s a “Why am I out there?” type of thing when Payne’s not there.
What occupies your time?
I play in a tennis league at Isleworth. I work here in the office and still do Payne Stewart Enterprises and the charity foundation. The Payne Stewart Golf Club in Branson, Mo., opens June 6. Everything is pretty much golf. I go for the Payne Stewart Award at the Tour Championship, and now Chelsea works for the tournament.
What’s your most vivid memory from his 1999 Open victory at Pinehurst?
When I dropped him off at the club before the last round, I said, “Believe in your heart that you can do it. Trust yourself.” He looked at me and said, “You know I have a big heart.” That was the joke he used to always say because he had an enlarged heart. He laughed and walked off. I know he was so disappointed from the year before and didn’t want everyone to say “Nice try” again. He wanted to win.
How should we remember Payne?
As a fierce competitor, a man who valued his friendships and relationships. And a really good person.
You two got married a year and a half after meeting in March 1980 at the Malaysian Open. You were there with your brother Michael, who like Payne was playing, and his wife. You two flirted like crazy, no?
We saw each other from across the room at the pro-am dinner Tuesday but didn’t meet until Friday. We played eye games all week long (laughing). It was definitely love at first sight for me. I thought he was gorgeous. He was tall and blond and tan, and really good- looking. And fortunately for me he had been in Asia for six weeks, and I was the first blonde he had seen in six weeks, so I kind of had an advantage. (Laughs)
How did you finally meet?
On Friday I went into the pro shop to look at some clothes and he started walking up and down outside the pro shop looking in the window. At one stage, he was looking at me. So I just stood there and stared at him, and he got real embarrassed (laughs) and walked away. When we went to the car, another pro introduced us. But I didn’t know what his first name was. I knew it started with a P, but I had never heard of anyone named Payne before. I got in the car and everyone in the car said, “Oh, you finally met him! What’s his name?” I was like, “I don’t know what he said his name was. Something Stewart.” The lady we were staying with was working at the tournament and said he must be Payne Stewart. And then my brother started on me, “Payne! Payne! What kind of name is Payne?” The next morning, he was having breakfast at the course and he came over and talked to me and asked if I’d like to have dinner with him that night.
I know you wrote a book about Payne, but what stories keep coming back to you?
I always remember what he said to me on the Saturday night before he left on that Monday (flight). He looked at me and said he was ready to shut it down (for a while). He had a great year and had accomplished his goals. He said, “I’m really tired; I’m done. I just want to stay home and watch my kids grow up.” He just wanted to stay home a couple of months.
A jury ruled in 2005 that Learjet was not at fault for the death of Payne and the five others on board. You were a part of a $200 million suit claiming that a faulty valve in the pressurization system caused a loss of cabin pressure and led to the crash. How disappointing was the verdict?
Very disappointing. But I still feel it was my duty to do it just to say what we thought happened so hopefully it could help someone in the future. I didn’t do it for financial reasons, because I didn’t need to. We had an opportunity to settle out of court. Two of the other ladies did, which was good because they needed it financially. I was surprised (by the verdict). But there are a lot of verdicts I don’t agree with.
Life is not fair?
Nobody said it ever was gonna be.