When Payne Stewart won his first major title, the 1989 PGA
Championship, and again when he won his second, the '91 U.S.
Open, there was no true joy, not in the grandstands, certainly
not in the locker room. Stewart couldn't hide his talent. His
action--his molasses-smooth backswing, his flowing
follow-through--was so elegant that fellow touring pros would
stand behind him on the practice tee, wordless, hoping that some
of Stewart's golfing grace would rub off on them. But he couldn't
hide his cockiness, either. He was always chomping on a tiny
piece of gum with his perfect teeth or tugging on his silly
little cap or making some outlandish boast. Other players didn't
know whether Stewart, in his garish plus-fours and steel-tipped
shoes, was first and foremost a golfer or an entertainer in
costume. When he was nice or charming or philanthropic--and he was
all those things at various times in his life--they didn't know if
he was acting or being genuine.
Then he grew up. Then he won the U.S. Open a second time, in
June, at Pinehurst, showing as much heart and emotion and nerve
as any man who has ever won the national championship. And then
he died on Monday, when a private jet that was carrying Stewart
from Orlando, where he lived, to Dallas crashed into a grassy
field in northeast South Dakota. The aircraft's two pilots,
Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, were also killed, as
were golf course architect Bruce Borland and Stewart's agents,
Robert Fraley and Van Ardan. Fraley also represented Atlanta
Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, Mets pitcher Orel Hershiser
and football coaches Bill Cowher, Bill Parcells and Dan Reeves,
The plane, a chartered twin-engine Learjet, left Orlando at about
9 a.m. on Monday. Stewart, a peppy member of the triumphant 1999
U.S. Ryder Cup team, was scheduled to visit a development in
suburban Dallas, Griffin Parc, where he and Borland were
designing a golf course. Stewart went to SMU in the late '70s and
won the '90 Byron Nelson Classic, a Dallas-area tournament named
for one of his golf mentors. He knew his way around the city, but
he never reached his destination.
For golf fans, the most indelible image of Stewart will be of
him on the final day of the Open at Pinehurst, when he made a
curling 18-foot putt on the 18th hole to prevail by a shot over
Phil Mickelson. In Scottsdale, Ariz., Mickelson's wife, Amy, was
about to go into labor. Right there, in the middle of all the
cacophony that greeted the winning putt at the Open, Stewart
grabbed Mickelson's head with two hands, as if it were a bowling
ball, and said, "You're going to be a father, you're going to be
a father!" All over the world, viewers lip-read those words. It
was special, selfless, gracious, real. It was the high point of
his best year as a pro--he was the 8th-ranked player in the
world, with more than $2 million in winnings--and ran his career
totals to 18 wins worldwide and nearly $12 million.
In life, as in golf, Stewart saved the best for last. He was 42.
He leaves behind his Australian-born wife, Tracey, whom he met
while playing in Malaysia in 1980, and their two children,
Chelsea, 13, and Aaron, 10. Recently he gave $500,000 to
Orlando's First Baptist Church, money intended for the church's
schools. He was in his prime.
After he won the 1991 Open, Stewart flew all over the world to
cash in on his success. Because he was offered large sums of
money to make the changes, he switched from forged-blades to
investment-cast clubs and from a wound ball to a solid ball. His
game suffered. Tracey and the children would go weeks without
ever seeing him. When Payne was in Orlando, he was often at the
site of the colossal new house he was building, a project that
used up much of his time, energy, money and aspirin. His
Saturday-night dinners, even during weeks when he was competing,
were boisterous and boozy affairs in which the main courses were
beer, martinis and red wine. He wasn't hurting anybody, just his
golf game. In '94 he finished 123rd on the money list,
unimaginable for such a talent. He told friends that he knew so
little about the technical aspects of his swing that he didn't
know how to right himself.
When Stewart rediscovered his game, beginning in 1997, he didn't
find it on the practice tee. "Payne was one of the great feel
players of all time," his longtime coach, E. Harvie Ward, said
on Monday night, and feel players don't find their secrets in
their big-muscle groups. In recent years Stewart started
examining his heart, his brain, his nervous system. He learned,
for the first time, that he had attention deficit disorder, and
knowing that helped him find ways to concentrate better on the
course. He helped his mother quit drinking and started watching
his own consumption of alcohol. He said he embraced Christianity
and the joys of his family. He quit smoking and chewing, until
the craving got to be too great. He became a regular in the
Tour's exercise trailer. He paid more attention to his
friendships, particularly the one he had with Paul Azinger, a
cancer survivor. "He was starting to see the things that made
him tick," said Richard Coop, a sports psychologist who worked
with Stewart. "He was starting to understand himself."
When he won the Open at Pinehurst--the best Open ever, according
to a lot of people who go year after year--Stewart said, "I have
so much fun being at home, getting up in the morning, making
breakfast, taking my kids to school, going to school activities.
That's what my life is right now." Payne Stewart brought life
and panache to the Tour. He went out on a high note. There's
nobody waiting in the wings to take his place. He was unique. He
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY Back in the limelight After failing to make the 1995 and '97 teams, Stewart played in his fifth Ryder Cup at the Country Club.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS A 18-footer at the Open in June gave Stewart his third major title.
COLOR PHOTO: DOUG MILLS/AP Twosome Tracey, a native of Australia whom Stewart met while playing on the Asian tour in 1980, shared his triumph at Pinehurst.
He won his second Open, showing as much heart and emotion as any
man who has ever won the national championship.