How does the son of a mailman from the wilds of northern Michigan become a foil for the young Tom Watson? How does he turn into a touring pro who has hitchhiked across two dozen countries? A disciple of Mother Teresa? A candidate for the U.S. Congress? An agent of perestroika? One of the gang at some of the country's most exclusive golf clubs? And, finally, a collector of the rare and the unusual in golf memorabilia? "The game has a way of taking you places," says Tom Stewart, with the understatement of a man who has seen much of what the world has to offer.
During the U.S. Open no one in Pinehurst was busier than Stewart, the 52-year-old bon vivant who owns Old Sport & Gallery, a charming shop in the heart of the village. Equal parts museum, bookstore and art gallery, the Old Sport did nearly $100,000 in business last week, and it undoubtedly would have done more if Stewart wasn't so attached to his various collectibles. "I love this stuff," he says, peering in through the window of his store. "I'm not particularly eager to part with any of it." If it sounds paradoxical for a memorabilia salesman to be anxious about selling his memorabilia, well, that's Stewart, who has always charted a unique course, even in the staid world of golf.
Stewart grew up in Petoskey, a town of 5,000 more than 300 miles north of Detroit, and started caddying at the hoity-toity Bay View Country Club when he was eight. The job introduced him to the charms of the game while also expanding his worldview, thanks to the captains of industry who summered in the area. By his high school years Stewart had become an assistant pro at nearby Walloon Lake Country Club. Walloon's first pro was the legendary Walter Hagen, and the club's musty photos and old stories led to Stewart's obsession with all things historical. He got to see a burgeoning legend up close when a pint-sized Watson and his family would vacation at Walloon.
"Sure, I remember Tom," says Watson. "Good player, nice swing. By the way, I liked his book." Hold on, Watson, we'll get to that. A basketball and golf scholarship took Stewart to Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, where he earned a degree in business administration. Stewart was a rabbit on the PGA Tour in 1975 and '76, then in the late '70s began crisscrossing the globe searching for golf and adventure, not necessarily in that order. Of his partner in crime, Fred Muller, now the head pro at Michigan's Crystal Downs Country Club, Stewart says, "We would grow beards, throw all our stuff in backpacks and disappear." Though he won only one tournament, Stewart was enriched in other ways. Following a tournament in Calcutta, in 1979, he sought out Mother Teresa and wound up working in one of her hospices for six weeks. "I was an idealistic child of the '60s," he says. "I wanted to give something back, but it wasn't easy. One day I asked Mother Teresa, 'How do you go on when we're barely making a dent?' She said, 'My son, God is not concerned with my results, only my efforts.' That really affected me."
In 1984 Stewart gave up golf to run for a seat in Congress as the representative for Michigan's 11th district. With Ronald Reagan mopping up Walter Mondale, it was a bad year to be a Democrat, and Stewart lost. Then while Reagan was going on about the Evil Empire, Stewart was, typically, reaching out. In 1985, after a trip to the Soviet Union, he helped found Sports Promotes Friendship, which provided opportunities for Russian teens to play golf in the U.S. Through Sports Promotes Friendship, Stewart met liana Starodubskaya, a Russian translator. They married in 1991, and their son, Bryan, was born the following year. Finally saddled with adult responsibilities, Stewart took head pro jobs at two seasonal clubs, the Adios Golf Club in Boca Raton, Fla., and his hometown Bay View Country Club.
The desire for the simple life of Pinehurst drew Stewart to the St. Andrews of the New World in '97. A place as rich in history as Pinehurst was an ideal market in which to set up shop with all the treasures he had collected over the years. He also ventured into publishing, writing the text for The Nature of Golf and serving as editor on two other projects. Says Muller, "Golf has been an important avenue for Tom's social activism. It has been a way for him to express his lust for life, and now through his shop he has become this Renaissance figure. His has been a unique journey."