Payne Stewart’s Legacy Grows with Time

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Payne2by Brad King

Who will ever forget the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2; the incredible drama that played out on the 18th green, where Payne Stewart rolled in an uphill, 15-footer to hold off his playing partner, Phil Mickelson, by a single stroke? Who doesn’t remember the searing image of Stewart’s exuberant, flailing-legged fist pump that punctuated the cool mist, or the bear hug he shared with his caddie, Mike Hicks?

Who can forget Stewart gently gripping Mickelson’s face in his hands, peering into his eyes, reassuring his vanquished foe with intense sincerity, “Don’t feel bad. You’re going to be a father.”

Given time and, of course, the circumstance of Stewart’s unimaginably tragic death just four months later — his chartered Learjet lost cabin pressure soon after departing Orlando, Fla., and flew on with all aboard deceased until running out of fuel and crashing in a South Dakota farm field — a moment captured in time has become as iconic as it was poignant. Stewart’s second national championship and third major title occurred in the final U.S. Open of the millennium. With time and circumstance, it may go down as the best.

With time, too, has Stewart’s legacy grown. While he was still alive and thrilling golf fans around the world with perpetual vibrancy — beyond his trademark knickers and old-time, ivy tam o’ shanter cap — Payne Stewart became a man of the people. With a pure swing, and gracious and gentlemanly yet passionately competitive conduct, Stewart stood for the common man’s golfer. His deep character and indomitable spirit tinged by his untimely death have turned Payne Stewart into an American legend.

“Everybody remembers that picture of him, grabbing Phil Mickelson after he beat him on the last hole of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 1999,” said Steve Stricker. “Telling Phil about how great an experience he was about to have, becoming a father for the first time. The next day. Very classy.”

Not surprisingly, Stricker, known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve, choked up recalling Stewart. The 45-year-old gentle Wisconsin native was accepting the 2012 Payne Stewart Award during the Tour Championship at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club. For 12 years, the annual award has been given to a player sharing Stewart’s respect for the traditions of the game, his commitment to uphold the game’s heritage of charitable support, and his professional and meticulous presentation of himself and the sport through his dress and conduct.

Since the inception of the award in 2000, the PGA Tour has bestowed it upon recipients truly worthy of an honor roll: names like Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Nick Price and Ben Crenshaw.

A two-time comeback player of the year, Stricker knows all about the ups and downs of the game. But during good times and bad, he remembered the lessons he learned about respecting the game from Payne Stewart. “I was playing terribly for a while, driving the ball all over the place,” Stricker said. “I was burning up inside. I even thought of quitting at one point. But I tried to still treat people right. I didn’t know Payne that well. I played with him a few times. And I thought about him, because he had some down periods, too. He fought his way through it while conducting himself like a professional.”

Payne1In 2001, Stewart was inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Today, many companies are committed to preserving the Payne Stewart legacy including Pro Tour Memorabilia, Golfolio, Kids Across America, Sports Images International, Saunders Group, Branson Hills Development Company, Golfingly Yours, Sanderson Enterprises, The Golf Channel and The First Academy.

Stewart’s widow, Tracey, has never remarried, telling people, “you can’t replace a Mercedes.” Aaron Stewart was only 10 years old when his father passed away, but still carries fond memories. He attended his father’s alma mater, Southern Methodist University in Dallas and played for the SMU golf team. Daughter Chelsea, now 26, graduated from Clemson and has worked for the Tour Championship in Atlanta. Then there’s the Payne Stewart Golf Club, a tribute course in Branson, Missouri, honoring Stewart’s life and legacy.

And, of course, there is Mickelson, who was still searching for his elusive first major championship when Stewart consoled him on Pinehurst’s 18th green. He is an elder statesman of the game, now, and Stewart’s words proved prophetic: For Mickelson there would indeed be bigger and better things.

The day after that ’99 Open, Mickelson’s wife, Amy, gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Amanda, who is 13 now and has a younger sister and brother, too. And Mickelson now owns four major titles and three green jackets, but is still searching for his first national championship.

Nevertheless, he will always have an important part in one of the U.S. Open’s most unforgettable moments. Mickelson said he is often asked about Stewart’s words to him on the 18th green that day.

“I think about what a great heart Payne had,” Mickelson said. “It was very touching that when he just had one of his greatest triumphs in his career, he was thinking about somebody else.”