The Library

Payne Stewart: A Fan's Notes
By Donald Johns

The summer season is upon us, and so is the U.S. Open, booked into Pebble two years ahead of schedule to bring in the Millennium. Just eight years ago, my pal Danboy and I made the three-hour trip down from the Bay Area to watch the last Open at Pebble. What a different world it was.

Sixteen-year-old Tiger Woods failed to qualify. Amateur star Phil Mickelson made his professional debut. Gil Morgan, now a fading veteran on the Senior Tour, made his best run at a major before suffering one of the most wrenching collapses in Open history. Young Colin Montgomery almost won it before Tom Kite caught magic and willed away the gale that vexed the field. (But no matter, Colin would win plenty of majors soon enough.)

Danboy and I ambled over to the first tee to watch journeyman Nick Price and young lion Paul Azinger tee off. Then we drifted out on the course to follow the champions for a few holes. I can see them now, striding down the fairway with that quick, fluid pace characteristic of the tournament golfer: Ian Baker-Finch, the British Open champion, come into his own at last; Mitch Voges, the unlikely U.S. Amateur Champion, his son toting the bag; and Payne Stewart, who could miss him, defending his first U.S. Open.

This year, Stewart would defend two titles at Pebble: the AT&T and his second Open, won under heroic pressure at Pinehurst last June.

Payne Stewart’s death, and its ghastly manner, shook me more than I would have thought. That may be in part due to Stewart’s larger-than-life profile, and a charisma lacking in most touring pros. The guy stood out, as he hoped he would when he first donned those plus-fours. If you watched any golf at all, you couldn’t help having the image imprinted on your brain-Stewart striding the fairway, snapping the gum, hitching the shoulders, yanking the club from the bag.

For me the impact of the tragedy stems also from the peculiar relationship golf fans sometimes have with the athletes they follow. We walk the course with these guys, sometimes in minuscule galleries. I’ve walked the course with Payne. I’ve stood around the third tee at Olympic with him, Ernie Els, Davis Love, and a few others waiting for the green to clear at the Tour Championship. I’ve met Stewart’s gaze from a distance not more than ten feet right after he’d missed a two-foot putt (at Cypress Point around ‘85, with a gallery of about twelve). Couldn’t have meant a thing to him, but it stuck with me, just like Sandy Lyle’s mile-wide grin flashed at Danboy and me and after Sandy’d holed a 45-ft birdie putt at the LA Open in ’98, late on a day he missed the cut.

A fan can manufacture an illusion of closeness to athletes in any sport, I suppose, but there’s something about golf-watching that makes it easier, at least for the fan who walks the course with the contestant. When you do that, you fall into a rhythm you can believe is similar to the player’s. For sure, you see the ups and downs, so numerous in a round of golf, and you experience them vicariously.

In time-honored fashion, Payne Stewart in death was examined from every angle. He was a controversial guy, we were told. He was arrogant. He had changed. I can’t say that I care much about any of that. I harbor no illusion that he and I would ever have much of anything in common, surely not religion or politics. I do admire him for speaking up for Casey Martin, for treating his caddy like a human being, and for being a good and generous friend, as respected Scots writer Alister Nichol attests. I also respect the fact that he enjoyed a good time. Like other longtime followers of the game, I admired his exceptional conduct on Sunday at the Ryder Cup, when he did what he could to mitigate the fans’ abuse of Montgomerie. But I will remember him mostly because of what he did as a golfer.

Out there on tour he accomplished a lot. After winning two majors and fading into near-mediocrity, he worked his way back when he could have drifted into ceremonial status. Coming back to win the Open last year was surely a heroic feat, especially after what happened at Olympic in ‘98. He played well enough to win that Sunday at Olympic--a 74 at that course under final-round pressure was a good round. Lee Janzen just happened to come out hot and play in good fortune all day long. Last year Mickelson could well have won with a break or two (and Woods would have won if he’d been able to make some short putts).

Stewart might have won or lost either or both of those Opens, depending upon a bounce or two. The point for me is that he played so well under such tremendous pressure two years in a row. For me, that is enough, and it deserves a place among the memorable feats of our time in golf history.

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