Chalk up one more major championship in which golf's
twentysomethings had their succession delayed by an elder. Last
year the spoiler was Mark O'Meara, and on Sunday at Pinehurst
No. 2, it was Payne Stewart.
Any player old enough to remember watching the original episodes
of Jonny Quest was supposedly through when Tiger Woods, Ernie
Els and Justin Leonard won the Masters, the U.S. Open and the
British Open, respectively, in 1997. But ever since, the
youngest winner in a major has been 33, and the 42-year-old
Stewart even nudged the average upward.
On paper, what happened at Pinehurst didn't make sense, and not
just because Stewart was up against three of the most talented
players in the game in Woods, David Duval and Phil Mickelson.
Going into the Open, all three had proved themselves better
finishers than Stewart, with a collective ratio of wins to
runner-up finishes of 33 to 17. In contrast, Stewart had 10
victories against 25 seconds. It wasn't his birdie runs that got
him labeled Avis.
But the majors, and particularly the U.S. Open, are determined
by qualities that transcend numbers. The shorthand term is
experience. By the sternest measure, Stewart has experience. He
has blown as many tournaments as any active player and has taken
some of his most brutal hits in the Open. Going into Sunday, he
had led more rounds of the championship--11--than any other
player in history but had only achieved victory in 1991, at
Hazeltine. In 1986, in 1993 and last year at the Olympic Club,
Stewart had lost the lead on the final nine.
Plenty of players have been destroyed by this brand of
experience, but Stewart took the Nietzschean route and got
stronger. What he gained is something as tangible as--and even
more valuable than--his underrated talent. Simply, peace.
Through defeat he matured into a better person than the
self-absorbed winner who high-fived a shattered Mike Reid after
Reid handed Stewart the '89 PGA. At Pinehurst, Stewart possessed
the glazed countenance ironically reminiscent of the Raymond
Floyd stare that unnerved a callow Stewart in the 1986 Open at
Shinnecock Hills. Serenity was at the heart of his amazing
resiliency at No. 2, and it was the lubricant that kept his
swing and putting stroke so smooth. Finally, it was his
advantage over the young lions.
"An athlete is used to proving himself by what he does on the
field, and Payne was no different," says Richard Coop, a sports
psychologist who has worked with Stewart since 1988. "But that
approach ultimately makes the result too important, and the
resulting pressure gets in the way. It's better to prove
yourself by what you are in life. Then the understanding that
you remain a good person no matter the outcome on the playing
field allows you to release the pressure and more easily have a
Pinehurst proved that Mickelson, Woods and Duval are still
trying to attain that knowledge. Certainly Mickelson, because of
the impending birth of his first child, had a degree of peace at
Pinehurst. On Sunday, however, his misses from inside 10 feet at
16 and 17 proved the difference.
Though fiery, Woods has perhaps the best understanding of the
inner-peace process. Each time his physical game failed him at
Pinehurst, his face took on a dead-eyed calm that manifested
itself in an instantly stabilized game. It's a quality that
Woods exhibited in his U.S. Amateur victories, and while the
warp-speed pace of his life after his Masters win has obviously
upset his sense of peace, his recent performances indicate he is
instinctively becoming more centered.
Incongruously, the most outwardly imperturbable of the
threesome, Duval, may at the moment be the least peaceful. Since
becoming the best player in the game, Duval has had to adjust to
new pressures and expectations. The attention seems to have
intruded on his dour but efficient approach. On Sunday, after
birdieing two of the first three holes, Duval began to drift,
and by the turn he had lost his way. It was instructive of how
transitory the ability to win can be.
There is no denying that Mickelson, Woods and Duval lost a
golden opportunity at Pinehurst. But each learned a lesson from
the experienced Stewart: Above all, keep the peace.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Serenity was at the heart of Stewart's resiliency, and it was his advantage over young lions like Duval (left).