Skip to main content
Original Issue

Payne Free At Last

Payne Stewart's U.S. Open playoff victory cured his aching back and reputation

Yeah, that dude in the gallery was right, you are the man, Payne Stewart! You stared choke in the face and you bit off its nose! You are the champ! Twice you were two strokes down with three holes left and the national championship slipping through your golf glove, and twice you hung on like Velcro, once just to stay alive and once to win.

O.K., so the very accommodating Scott Simpson made eight very accommodating bogeys in Monday's 18-hole playoff to grease the rails a little, but they won't engrave that on the trophy, right? You outlasted the bad neck and the bad back and the bad head and the bad bogeys, and you won. You did it with rubdowns and shrinks and chiropractors, and by sleeping in your son's bed and sleeping in a neck brace and playing in a weird corset and even talking out loud to yourself. You showed us something new, Payne Stewart. You showed us something courageous.

Everybody knew what the rap against Stewart was coming into last week's U.S. Open at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. Even Stewart admitted that Ray Floyd stared a hole in him when Stewart was leading the Open in the final round at Shinnecock five years ago. Of course, Floyd won. Stewart's greatest charge to victory, in the 1989 PGA Championship, was more like a midnight slink up the back staircase; he won with a soda in his hand while watching Mike Reid bogey 16 and double-bogey 17. But last week, Stewart had a shiny resilience. For once, his attention span was longer than his knickers. "I've never seen you so focused," Greg Norman told him on Friday.

Two months ago, Stewart was in such disrepair he couldn't lift a two-pound weight over his head. But on Monday he was lifting the silver trophy over it, as the the winner by two shots in a last-man-with-his-shirt-still-on playoff over a course that was only slightly harder than trigonometry. And when he had won, when he had literally talked himself into making a four-foot par putt on 18 that he could've lagged, it was hard to say who was crying more, Stewart or his wife, Tracey. "This means so much," he said. "I'm as good as I thought I was going to be."

For 15 holes on Monday, he did not look very good at all. Neither did Simpson. Stewart made four bogeys and no birdies in that stretch, and Simpson had five bogeys and three birdies, one on a 20-foot putt on the 14th hole that, had it not gone in, might have wound up in Wisconsin. Not that Stewart wasn't blessed. On the par-3 8th, he bounced his ball off a submerged rock in a lake and onto dry land. "That was a lucky break," said Simpson. Are you kidding? Your Hazeltine locals always play that rock.

As the two men stood on the 16th tee, Simpson must have felt an awful sense of dread. Two shots up with three to play, just like the day before. Only this time, Simpson put his drive in the middle of the fairway and his second shot in the center of the green, while Stewart hung a one-iron on the right edge of the fairway, leaving him a gritty eight-iron that he had to get over a tree and close to the pin. With 18 feet to go, Stewart hit a putt that was much too hard—but dead in the hole.

A golf ball falling in a hole shouldn't make the earth shake, but it did under Simpson's shoes. He missed his four-footer for par, and suddenly it was a two-hole U.S. Open. Stewart's five-iron to the par-3 17th was lovely, to within 18 feet, but that's when Scott Simpson decided to swing like Homer Simpson. His four-iron waffled left and drowned in a pond. He salvaged a bogey, but he trailed by one.

Both players missed the fairway on 18. As Stewart was setting up to hit from the right bunker, he could hear a voice over a course marshal's walkie-talkie say, "Let's get the pin set for the first playoff hole." So Stewart gave himself a good talking to: "I said, 'Just stand in here and hit this shot, and there won't be a playoff hole.' " He did, but his shot missed the green, just as Simpson's would. Simpson was faced with a downhill 15-foot chip. "I knew I had to hole it," he said. He didn't, and when his comeback putt missed, Stewart could've two-putted with his putter grip.

While it's true that Stewart's 75 was the worst winning score in a U.S. Open playoff since 1927—and there have been 30 playoffs since 1901, including four in the past eight years—it was two shots better than Simpson's round. "It's really disappointing to lose the U.S. Open two days in a row," said Simpson, who has won the Open once, in 1987. Over the five rounds at Hazeltine, he played the last three holes in eight over par, while Stewart played them in one under.

But if some people want to call this Open a Simpson Trophy Sale, they ought not say so around Stewart. "I played my ass off today," he said.

Still, for all the glory of Stewart's win, nothing in life is as dunderheaded as the Monday playoff that the USGA insists on retaining as part of the Open. On Sunday, in one place, you have the players, the fans, the officials, the volunteers, the press, the tension, the course, plenty of daylight, a huge television audience, even Jack Whitaker. Then, just as you are at the height of the suspense, the peak of the passion, a goofy-looking guy in a wrinkled blue blazer comes out and says, "Let's settle this tomorrow." It's like watching Casablanca and having the tape snap on you just before the airport scene.

"They should crown the champion today," Stewart said, after he and Simpson had completed the regulation 72 holes tied at six-under 282, three strokes ahead of Larry Nelson and Fred Couples, with three hours of Minnesota sunlight still available. However, golfers and sense don't tell the USGA what to do, and golf fans were left with an anticlimax not felt since the coming of the comet Kohoutek.

Then again, the USGA is the same organization that brought the U.S. Open to a place that obviously is hexed. When the 1970 Open was played here, Dave Hill said all Hazeltine lacked were "80 acres of corn and a few cows." In '83 a golfer died of a heart attack at Hazeltine while playing in the U.S. Senior Open. And this year, on Thursday, 40,000 people with nowhere to hide tried to run from a fierce lightning storm. A group of people were huddling under a 30-foot willow tree just to the left of the 11th tee, when a bolt hit. "All I heard was a boom, boom, like two gunshots," said spectator Don Lindley, "then all those people fell like bowling pins." Of the 12 who fell, six got up right away, five were hospitalized and treated overnight and one, Bill Fadell, 27, of Spring Park, Minn., didn't move. A witness said Fadell's hands were still in his pockets while paramedics worked on him. He was pronounced dead at nearby St. Francis Regional Medical Center.

The next day, rain delayed play for the second time in the tournament. Then two fans were taken to hospitals and eight others were slightly injured when a short stairway leading to some bleachers collapsed. On Saturday, a huge public parking lot had to be closed because of mud. The U.S. Open Welcomes You.

Out on the course, Stewart and Simpson persevered. Stewart's five-under-par 67 tied Nolan Henke for the first-round lead, though nobody was silk-screening NOLAN HENKE WINS OPEN T-shirts, especially when somebody asked him on Thursday, "Are you surprised to be here, and can you win?" Replied Henke, "Very surprised and no." No, he couldn't win? "Well, I guess if everybody else broke a leg." Hey, it's Hazeltine. It could happen.

On Friday, Stewart shot 70 to go one shot up on Simpson, Henke and Corey Pavin. Not only did Stewart hit 33 of 36 greens in the first two rounds, but he also hit two of three beds in his rented house. A herniated disk in his neck sidelined him for 10 weeks this season, and he wears a brace for a chronic back injury while playing, so he is particular about where he sleeps. The bed he and his wife slept in was too soft, so on Thursday night at two in the morning, he kicked his little boy, Aaron, out of bed and slept there.

Pavin, the PGA Tour's leading money depositor this year ($748,856 after the Open), was doomed from the start because Stewart had kidnapped his mental masseur, Dr. Richard Coop, a sports psychologist. Coop and Stewart have a contract that says Coop has to stay with Stewart during the four majors. Pavin was reduced to phoning Stewart's house at night for therapy sessions.

Pavin went out on Saturday and shot 79. In fact, almost everybody shot 79 in the third round. Only two players—defending champion Hale Irwin (70) and Nick Price (71)—broke par. Stewart had a 73 and Simpson a 72 in the blustery conditions. Why would anyone ever be surprised by what Simpson does in the U.S. Open? In the last five, he has never been more than five shots out of the lead. His downfall has been his play on Sundays.

Though they were sharing a four-shot lead at six under when play began on Sunday, both players insisted the final round wasn't head-to-head. But no other player would get closer than three shots, so it turned out to be just that. Who knew, though, that Sunday's round would be the first half of a grueling 36-hole playoff?

Simpson made two birdies in the first 10 holes on Sunday, while Stewart was making birdie at 3, bogey at 6 and saving par from everywhere but the top of the bright blue water tower at the entrance to the course. (Note to Augusta National: Have you thought of trying a water tower to spruce up your entrance?) Simpson still had a two-stroke advantage when they reached the infamous, impossible par-4 16th, the Hazeltine Guillotine.

If you ever get a tee time in hell, there will be two certainties: 1) You will be playing behind Bernhard Langer, and 2) the course will include Hazeltine's 16th. You must carry your tee shot 210 yards over water and swamp, keep it out of the lake and marsh on the right and avoid a creek on the left. If you clear all that, and you probably won't, you've got a five- or six-iron into a narrow green that has water and turtles on three sides. On Saturday, when the 16th had played into a Grapes of Wrath kind of wind, there were no birdies to be had and the average score was 4.94. In fact, there were more bogeys (28) than pars (25), including six doubles, three triples and three quads.

On Sunday, Simpson made his third bogey of the week at 16, driving the ball into five-inch grass and hitting a dreadful hook that went maybe 100 yards. Stewart missed a 15-footer for a birdie, but Simpson's lead was down to one and his suit of calm had a rip in it.

On to the 17th, where Stewart hit a classic shot that ended up 12 feet above the hole. His putt trickled just to the left of the cup. Stewart had now missed three makable birdie putts on as many holes. "What was my reaction?" said Simpson. "My reaction was, 'Phew!' "

With one stroke still separating them, Simpson and Stewart marched to the long and uphill 18th, a 452-yard par-4. Under the best of circumstances, the hole is tough for Simpson, who was near the bottom of the field in driving distance for the tournament. It became even harder when he pulled his tee shot into the jungle rough. He plopped out with a nine-iron, hit a wedge to within 15 feet of the pin and missed his par putt. Simpson was looking at sure bogey, maybe a double bogey.

Here was Stewart, then, his ball on the fringe, with a 20-foot downhill putt to win the U.S. Open and, better still, make his Monday plane for the Irish Open. Sadly for all the fans in the Twin Cities who couldn't get Monday off and for all the fans across the country who can't fit a TV set into their cement mixers, the ball rolled by the hole. "I never gave it a chance to go in," he said later. Stewart made the spleen-twisting six-footer, coming back. Simpson still had a four-footer, and he made it to force the playoff.

May it be the last.



Stewart packed a punch in his putter on Saturday, parring the 16th from 50 feet.



Simpson missed sewing up his second Open—and this birdie putt at the 6th—on Sunday.



Even before he struggled on Saturday, Henke said he would need a lot of broken legs to win.



One spectator was killed and five were injured when lightning struck a willow tree Thursday.



When this putt didn't drop, two-time Open winner Curtis Strange, who missed the cut, did.