(NOTE: This is part 2 of a 3-part tribute to 1999 U.S. Open golf champion Payne Stewart, my friend and the man for whom I edited and ghostwrote Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf. Below is the story I wrote on his epic triumph at Pinehurst No. 2 – which Sports Illustrated has called the greatest U.S. Open in history. This story ran in August 1999 – two months after winning the Open, and two months before his tragic death in a plane crash. It was also referenced at his funeral. With the golf world honoring Payne at Pinehurst this week, it felt like a great time to hear about his great victory once again – from him.)
A CHAMPION’S JOURNEY
By Robert Yehling
Originally Published in 1999 by Faircount International, LLC
In Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf
HOW DO PEOPLE LIKE PAYNE STEWART GROW INTO GENUINE CHAMPIONS and heroes to our youth? First of all, by not buying into the myth of today’s sports “hero,” all too often a person who basks in the spotlight, drips with money, gets chauffeured in stretch limos, charges for autographs, blows off his fans and yet finds red carpets wherever he goes. Our sports-addicted society has made it easy for talented but emotionally green young men to vault directly from adolescence to Mt. Olympus. Need a reference point? Try the NBA.
Then we turn to the classic hero’s journey, which is entirely different. It is a long, challenging walk, during which one releases old tendencies and endures plenty of doubt before emerging with a new perspective, strengthened character and rearranged priorities. Any trauma in life can launch this quest, but the person doesn’t know it ever started until the midway point. If regular daily life is a walk through hills and valleys, then the hero’s journey is a trek in the Himalayas. It’s rough. Joseph Campbell, the 20th century’s foremost author and lecturer on world mythology, wrote in his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “The perilous journey was a labor not of attainment but of reattainment, not discovery but rediscovery.”
Once finished, the individual savors life. Friends, family and the public notice the composure, class, inner peace and magnetism. The lessons learned are never forgotten. They’re too painful and clarifying to forget.
In 1999, sports fans have been blessed with the happy outcome of one such journey. That belongs to newly crowned U.S. Open Champion Payne Stewart, who for eight years faced an inner battle of confidence, priorities, desire and attitude that complicated his outer struggle with his skills and lower back. Then he summited this past Father’s Day as a refined, mature, spiritual and peaceful man with a mean knockout punch for a putter. That he did so at age 42, when many PGA Tour veterans are beginning to locate broadcasting deals, schools of fish and the Senior Tour on their range-finders, makes his accomplishment more remarkable.
“Yeah, I had a pretty good weekend at Pinehurst – it was worth going out of town for a couple of days,” Stewart deadpanned a few days after sinking the 18-foot putt that launched him into a memorable celebration and cemented his name among the 30 or so greatest players in history. He chuckled and added, “Was that entertaining enough? Did you enjoy that?”
When told that his celebration made for thrilling Sunday evening TV, he noted, “You know what my son said to me when I got home? Not ‘way to go, Dad’ or ‘nice putt’ or anything like that. He said, ‘The celebration was cool, but you and Mike (Hicks, his caddie) missed the high-five.’”
That’s about all Stewart missed on Father’s Day. That and his kids, who didn’t make the trip to Pinehurst (daughter Chelsea, 12, was at a girls basketball camp; sports runs in the family blood). He sure didn’t miss many putts on one of the U.S. Open’s greatest final-day greens operations ever – 18 holes, 24 putts, and three total putts on the final three holes with the pressure of, oh, a career legacy riding on his shoulders. “Seldom does an athlete’s entire career come down to one crisis he knows in his heart will define the way he is remembered in sport forever,” famed Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote. “It’s even rarer for that athlete to rise to the occasion spectacularly, doing things the sport has never seen, and especially erase all the doubts and digs that have dogged him.”
A couple of weeks later, after he and his wife, Tracey, basked in the Bahamas and the pure, sweet feeling of his achievement, Stewart was more reflective. “I’ve looked back on it and realized that what I did was pretty special,” he said. “People are telling me it was the best Open finish of the century, one of the greatest Opens, those kinds of things, but I never thought about how this would go down – especially during the Open itself.”
Just five years before, in 1994, Stewart was ready to quit the game. Now, he’s having a career year and riding high. His view is one a lot of his contemporaries would like: wins in three majors (only Tom Watson, Nick Faldo and Nick Price can match that among active players), 11 PGA Tour victories, two U.S. Open titles in the ‘90s, five berths on Ryder Cup teams, and Top-3 positions on both the season and all-time money lists. He’s led more rounds of the U.S. Open than anyone in history, threatens to double his previous high-water mark for season earnings, and has turned his putter into a laser beam that rarely misfires; he ranks second on the PGA Tour in 199 with 1.7 putts per hole.
Most of all, the proud family man from Orlando with the sweet swing, firecracker sense of humor (right down to the fake teeth he breaks out at choice moments), ready opinions and plus-fours has silenced the legion of fans and media who said he couldn’t finish golf tournaments. He shut up those voices, along with Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh, with an epic closing effort at Pinehurst No. 2’s 16th, 17th and 18th. Course designer Donald Ross could only join Payne’s late father, Bill, in the heavens and nod his head.
Here is how Stewart transcended the baggage of near misses: First, he sank a 25-foot par-saving putt on 16 to tie Mickelson. Stewart later admitted, “I really couldn’t figure out how that putt worked when I was watching it on video afterward. It was like driving up a hill, back down the hill, then leveling out.” He waved to the crowd as casually as if he’d canned a 4-footer in a pro-am. He strode up to 17, with a few thousand butterflies and pieces of iron clanking in his stomach, and nearly aced the hole – whereby Mickelson realized he was no longer in control of the tournament. Stewart sank his short birdie putt for the lead, went to 18… and drove it into the deep rough. Mickelson split the fairway. What was next? Go for the glory, like Jean Van de Velde did, only to lose the British Open a month later? Nope. Stewart laid up, hit a wedge to the center of the green, calmly lined up his 18-foot putt, and stroked it into the ages. Van de Velde should’ve watched. His British Open result might have been different.
“The U.S. Open champion Sunday was Stewart. Then it was Mickelson. Then Stewart. Then Mickelson,” wrote Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. “Then, finally, on a glorious putt that weaved through the raindrops and over the demons and into the 18th hole with a roar as big as all of North Carolina, the winner was Stewart. And it was golf.”
This is where Stewart’s performance becomes heroic, and lays the spotlight on a transformed man and his transformed life. Just one year ago, on a Father’s Day that should have provided a storybook ending (winning on the same course on which his Dad qualified for the 1955 U.S. Open), he coughed up a four-stroke lead on Olympic Golf Club’s sidewinding hills and fell to Lee Janzen by missing a 25-foot putt on 18. Though crushed, Stewart gave one of the more gracious press conferences any journalist could remember from a runner-up at a major. He was deeply hurt. Yet determined. He wanted another Open trophy this decade. “For Payne to battle back from the adversity last year, that proves his character. His willingness to fight through all that is a tribute,” Tiger Woods said.
“I understand how mental golf is,” Stewart says. “If I allowed last year’s U.S. Open to affect me, then it could’ve been career-ending, my ‘we’ll never hear from him again’ tournament. But, I’ve never felt I was like that. I tried to take the positives from the (1998) Open, and there were positives – I nearly won. So this year, when I headed out to the West Coast (for the PGA Tour’s season-opening leg), I had all the equipment in my bag. I had my golf ball, it was a new year, it was bright and exciting, and I was hitting good golf shots, so I started focusing on winning a golf tournament, because I knew I was hitting good enough shots to win again.”
(The second half of this article will appear on The Word Journeys Blog Sunday, Father’s Day – 15 years to the day after Payne Stewart won the classic 1999 U.S. Open).