(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.)