WOW, am I ecstatic! My first literary review in English, of The Fragrance of Angels, came out in my hometown mag, Carlsbad Magazine. What a wonderful feeling. &nb…
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(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).
(Part One of a special three-part series)
It takes quite a story to bring me to tears – especially a sports story. Yet, I sat on my couch the other day, eyes wet as I read the anchor piece in Sports Illustrated: a reminiscence of the 1999 U.S. Open, one of the greatest golf competitions ever. It also recalled one of the greatest writing experiences of my career, as the editor-ghostwriter of Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf.
The Open had every twist and turn of high drama on center stage: old vs. young. Comeback after comeback. Riveting clutch shots. Agonizing misses. A man honoring his father on Father’s Day. Another about to become one — and prepared to fly cross-country when his wife went into labor, even if he was winning.
Most of all, it had my friend and client, Payne Stewart. With a tough par putt on 16, a birdie on 17, and an 18-foot putt on the final hole on the notorious Pinehurst No. 2 course, Payne exorcised naysayers who said he would never win another major, lifted his eyes to the heavens, and gave his late father, Bill, quite the Father’s Day present. “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,” he told me later. “I thought about getting the job done. Once the job’s done, then you reflect on it and think, ‘Wow, those last three holes were pretty special.’”
It became even moreso. In an act of greatest sportsmanship, Payne interrupted his celebration on the 18th green to cup the face of runner-up Phil Mickelson, and say, “There’s nothing like being a father.”
The next night, Mickelson and his wife, Amy, gave birth to their daughter, Amanda.
Those who follow sports (and many who don’t) know what happened next. At the height of his life – with family, friends, golf, priorities, and happiness perfectly aligned, a great place to be at age 42 – Payne was killed in an October 1999 plane crash when the cabin depressurized.
The next day, I was a call-in guest on The Jim Rome Show. Other media called for comments. It was hard to fathom. Watching your friend lose his life in slo-mo on CNN live, with F-16 fighter jets flanking the doomed plane on its ghost flight into a South Dakota field, was surreal enough.
A few days later, 4,000 people turned out for his funeral. More than 125 members of the PGA Tour flew from the TOUR Championship to Orlando and entered the church in single file, led by Tiger Woods. That reminded me of something Payne told me after the U.S. Open, which was reprised in the Sports Illustrated article:
“I’m on the putting green with Tiger, and he says, ‘You know, when I start designing courses, I’m going to make them 9,000 yards so you old guys can’t reach the greens.’”
Payne drew out a long pause, the Southern storyteller lining up his salvo. “I said, ‘Yeah, Tiger, but if it’s the U.S. Open, you still have to hit it in the fairway.”
At the funeral, Payne’s best friend, Paul Azinger, turned tears to cheers when he donned a derby cap, rolled up his slacks, and delivered the eulogy just as Payne would have played it – in plus-fours.
To say Payne died atop the world is not a cheap sentiment, nor a churlish reference to mid-air depressurization. He was riding high, with more to come; a week later, he would have been named U.S. Ryder Cup captain, the ultimate peer-to-peer honor.
I spent the last four years of Payne’s life working with him, playing golf with him, falling prey to his wicked southern-fried pranks, and watching him rise from the ash heap of “what might have beens” to again become a champion.
We became good friends through Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf. He took me to Florida’s finest golf courses, where I hacked along while he, Ernie Els, Justin Rose, Azinger and others fired irons and woods like snipers. He hosted me in his palatial Villa Serena home, gave me great putting and chipping tips, and talked story. Most of all, he shared a personality bubbling with a champion’s intensity, quick wit, occasional fiery temper, and penchant for finding fun. His devotion to his wife, Tracey, and children, Aaron and Chelsea, was absolute: Payne almost missed the tragic flight because he made Chelsea her coveted pancakes before leaving for The TOUR Championship.
Some moments that will remain with me forever:
• One day in 1997, 8-year-old Aaron came into the house with a busted lip from skateboarding. “Why can’t you like something normal, like soccer or baseball?” Payne asked him.
“Because skateboarding and surfing are fun. Plus, the top surfer, (world champion) Kelly Slater, makes more than you.”
Payne turned to me, laughing. “The things kids say. No way a surfer makes more than me.”
“Hate to tell you this, Payne, but based on 1996 winnings, Aaron’s right,” I said.
The beauty of this story: After Payne died, my friend Mitch Varnes and I sprung a surprise for Aaron – a fishing and surfing trip with his idol, Kelly Slater.
• Payne took more friendly fire when the family sat to discuss his 1997 playing schedule. They compared vacation plans, school sports schedules and the events Payne wanted, or needed, to play. “I think I’m going to bump it up this year,” he told the family, “maybe play 26 or 27 events.”
“Well, Dad, if you’d win, you wouldn’t have to play so much,” his son chimed in.
Interestingly, Payne began winning again in 1997 – a trajectory that only a plane crash could halt.
• We were playing Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer’s course, during a break in Payne’s 1999 schedule. I was in a group with Payne, teenaged 1998 British Open runner-up Justin Rose, head pro Dave Rose, and John Lodge, bass player for the Moody Blues. I split the fairway off the first tee, and opened birdie-par to lead after two holes.
Payne turned to the others. “I’ll be damned, boys,” he drawled, his voice dripping with his native Ozark accent. “I brought along a ringer. My apologies.”
Thanks, Payne. Needless to say, the wheels fell off and it became a long, painful visit to alligator swamps and cypress woods for me.
• About two months before Payne died, I found him in a quiet, reflective mood as I walked into his house. “What’s going on?”
“I’m blown away right now.”
He and Tracey were selling Villa Serena to move to nearby Isleworth, a golf-oriented community. They’d received a call to view the house; the party was eminently qualified to handle its steep price tag. “I kept asking them to tell me who the person was, but they wouldn’t.” Payne’s wry smile was gone. “I wasn’t about to let anyone in my house unless I knew who they were, but they told me, ‘Don’t worry; he’s qualified.’”
The next day, the prospective buyer arrived. It was Michael Jackson. Oh boy … the Poster Child of Bizarre meets the Red, White & Blue Father of the Year. “Now that would be the last person I’d let into my house,” Payne said, “but after he walked around for a minute, he asked me to sit down with him.”
Cue up the magic: for the next hour, Jackson asked Payne about parenting. He’d heard that Payne was a wonderful father, and wanted his advice on raising kids. “That’s the only reason why he came to view the house,” Payne said. “Just to sit and talk. It sure changed my tune about him.”
I could go on and on. The wonderful Sports Illustrated article triggered so many memories, but more importantly, recalled one of sports’ greatest personalities and events. The PGA Tour will gather this week at Pinehurst No. 2 for the first U.S. Open held there since Payne’s victory, and NBC will certainly trot out a tribute piece.
I’m going to remember my friend as well. The next two Word Journeys blogs will re-run “A Champion’s Journey,” the last piece I wrote on Payne. It was my best. It first published in Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf in September 1999, a month before I lost a friend and the sports world lost one of its finest people.
(Part One of “A Champion’s Journey” will run on Wednesday. June 11. Part two will run on Friday, June 13.)
(This blog also posted today on the Innovation & Tech Today magazine website; I serve as the editor of the magazine.)
I just returned to San Diego from Boston, where I ran in my fourth Boston Marathon. This year, the 26.2-mile journey from Hopkinton to Boston’s Back Bay took on far more meaning, gravitas and stature than any previous marathon, here or anywhere else in the world.
When April began, I was planning to run Boston – in 2015. I was eight weeks into a 16-week training plan that would culminate in re-qualifying at the Rock & Roll Marathon on June 1. So, my intention was to be race-ready and to peak on June 1. Not that I had time to do it any other way. I’ve spent this month finishing the rewrite of one book (Just Add Water, the biography of Clay Marzo to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2015); proofing the galleys of another (When We Were The Boys, Stevie Salas’ memoir [which I co-authored] of his days as Rod Stewart’s lead guitarist on the 1988 Out of Order Tour, to be published by Rowman Littlefield in September); and lining up the Summer issue of Innovation & Tech Today.
However, an amazing email came my way that proves, again, the absolute power of networking in business and in life: four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers, who is a friend, offered me his invitational entry. So, with 12 days’ notice, I switched gears and flew back east, taking my not-quite-ready-for-prime-time legs with me.
Thanks to last year’s tragic bombings, the entire world watched to see what would happen in Boston. More than 1,000 media outlets were on hand, along with 36,000 registered runners and a crowd exceeding 1 million. They came to honor the survivors who were running or walking, to take that glorious run to the finish line down Boylston Street themselves, and/or to celebrate determination and resilience – and to stare down those cowards who would try to disrupt our way of life. In this case, a massive celebration of fitness at the world’s oldest footrace, one that poured an estimated $200 million into Boston. Not bad for a three-day Patriot’s Day weekend.
I ran Boston before large crowds in 2005, 2007 and 2009. Never has the crowd approached the fever pitch we experienced in 2014. “For a few hours, we got to feel like rock stars,” I told my friend, Stevie Salas, who is a rock star. We were treated like rock stars, too, from police who high-fived and thanked us for coming, to strangers in cafes and restaurants who saw the distinctive medals around our tired necks and bought us meals or drinks.
Along with runners, media and spectators came one of the largest rollouts of law enforcement and surveillance technology ever presented at a public event. More than 3,500 uniformed and undercover officers from a dozen agencies (including the FBI, DEA, ATF and Homeland Security) were on hand. They were vigilant, their eyes always scanning the streets; they reminded me of Secret Service agents. A few locals even questioned the massive police presence (really?). However, the police were not only very friendly, but also openly thanked us for coming to Boston to run, then started asking individual questions about our race. In their eyes, we were all in this together.
The cops’ sincerity and welcoming attitude amidst incredible security goes on from there. As we pushed toward the finish line, many high-fived us and cheered as loudly as the spectators. A Brookline cop leaned toward me at mile 24, when I was visibly struggling, and yelled, “You’re f****** awesome! Keep pushing! Own the finish line!” Talk about being caught up in the moment. (BTW, thanks to that officer for getting me going again…)
I’ve been to a lot of sports events. I’ve never seen anything like it. They were over-the-top accommodating. My spine is tingling just writing this — one of many times it’s tingled as the enormity of the journey into Boston starts to open up each and every little experience as the days pass.
Early in the race, I ran next to two of about fifteen NYPD officers in the field. Before passing them (one of the things you can do on a race course, if not on the road!), I mentioned how cool it was that they were running. “We’re also on duty,” one told me. How smart is that, to have fifteen on-duty officers in the middle of the pack?
The technology was impressive. Drones, streetlight-mounted cameras, scanners, robots and the latest in law enforcement equipment covered every bit of the course. Before we boarded shuttle busses to the start, we runners were scanned, too. So sensitive was the scanning that I was questioned about a tube of chapstick and two packs of energy gels. Normally, one might think, “over reach”. Not in Boston. Not this time.
Consequently, out of one million people who poured into the Boston area and along the course, one person was arrested. For public drunkenness. And only two unattended bags were picked up (neither harmful). That is a mind-boggling statistic.
The other bit of eye-catching technology came from the running shoes themselves. If you ever want to see the very latest in shoe technology, go to the staging area or starting line of a marathon. Especially a prestigious race like Boston. Every new shoe from every major manufacturer was on the line. You would think marathon shoes would carry some weight, since you need cushion, heel and arch support, side stabilizers and aeration to cover 26 miles, right? Not five years ago, the lightest halfway decent marathon racing flat was about eight ounces. Well, I showed up with 5-ounce Mizuno Wave Sayonaras… and didn’t suffer so much as a blister on the hot, dry day.
However, the shoe story of the day came from a company not normally considered a player among running shoes. It was Skechers, more popular for their Joe Montana-endorsed (and very good) walking shoes. A few years ago, Skechers made an interesting move when they signed then 35-year-old Olympic medalist and New York Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi to an endorsement deal. Meb, a San Diego resident, was a household name to millions of runners but seemingly past his prime, a good way for Skechers to make an imprint in a very lucrative market with plenty of turnover. Let’s face it: runners go through shoes almost as fast as Lady Gaga switches hairstyles and outfits.
A funny thing happened in Boston: Meb made the largest imprint U.S. marathoning has experienced since Alberto Salazar broke the world record in 1982 and Joan Benoit Samuelson won the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon in LA in 1984. Now 38, Meb became the first American in 31 years to win Boston, a victory magnified by the significance of this year’s race. Now everyone in the sports world is asking themselves, “What technology did Skechers build into those shoes to make someone as esteemed as Meb feel comfortable enough to race in them?” (And no, it wasn’t just about the money side of his endorsement deal; ask golfer Rory McIlroy what happens when the new equipment doesn’t work right.)
That’s the beauty of running shoe technology: just when you think it’s tapped out, something new happens. Just three years ago, Newton was known as a town on the Boston course, the place where a fig bar was invented, and the last name of a mathematician who was clunked on the head with an apple. Now, it’s one of the three top-selling brands.
It’s going to take awhile to recollect every moment of the six days I spent in Boston, and the events surrounding the Marathon itself. Thank God I’m a writer: I can write down the moments and then unfurl the scenes as they happened, and how I felt. I can recollect all the conversations with runners, officials, fans, media and cops, and turn on my memoir writing afterburners to make some sense and order of them. On second thought, maybe I don’t want to, at least not yet. It’s like picking stars out of the universe. Right now, best to immerse in that universe where, for one day, everyone came together and joy and positivity ruled.