When Payne Stewart won his first major title, the 1989 PGA Championship, and again when he won his second, the '91 U.S. Open, there was no true joy, not in the grandstands, certainly not in the locker room. Stewart couldn't hide his talent. His action—his molasses-smooth backswing, his flowing follow-through—was so elegant that fellow touring pros would stand behind him on the practice tee, wordless, hoping that some of Stewart's golfing grace would rub off on them. But he couldn't hide his cockiness, either. He was always chomping on a tiny piece of gum with his perfect teeth or tugging on his silly little cap or making some outlandish boast. Other players didn't know whether Stewart, in his garish plus-fours and steel-tipped shoes, was first and foremost a golfer or an entertainer in costume. When he was nice or charming or philanthropic—and he was all those things at various times in his life—they didn't know if he was acting or being genuine.
Then he grew up. Then he won the U.S. Open a second time, in June, at Pinehurst, showing as much heart and emotion and nerve as any man who has ever won the national championship. And then he died on Monday, when a private jet that was carrying Stewart from Orlando, where he lived, to Dallas crashed into a grassy field in northeast South Dakota. The aircraft's two pilots, Michael Kling and Stephanie Bellegarrigue, were also killed, as were golf course architect Bruce Borland and Stewart's agents, Robert Fraley and Van Ardan. Fraley also represented Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, Mets pitcher Orel Hershiser and football coaches Bill Cowher, Bill Parcells and Dan Reeves, among others.
The plane, a chartered twin-engine Lear-jet, left Orlando at about 9 a.m. on Monday. Stewart, a peppy member of the triumphant 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team, was scheduled to visit a development in suburban Dallas, Griffin Pare, where he and Borland were designing a golf course. Stewart went to SMU in the late '70s and won the '90 Byron Nelson Classic, a Dallas-area tournament named for one of his golf mentors. He knew his way around the city, but he never reached his destination.
For golf fans, the most indelible image of Stewart will be of him on the final day of the Open at Pinehurst, when he made a curling 18-foot putt on the 18th hole to prevail by a shot over Phil Mickelson. In Scottsdale, Ariz., Mickelson's wife, Amy, was about to go into labor. Right there, in the middle of all the cacophony that greeted the winning putt at the Open, Stewart grabbed Mickelson's head with two hands, as if it were a bowling ball, and said, "You're going to be a father, you're going to be a father!" All over the world, viewers lip-read those words. It was special, selfless, gracious, real. It was the high point of his best year as a pro—he was the 8th-ranked player in the world, with more than $2 million in winnings—and ran his career totals to 18 wins worldwide and nearly $12 million.
In life, as in golf, Stewart saved the best for last. He was 42. He leaves behind his Australian-born wife, Tracey, whom he met while playing in Malaysia in 1980, and their two children, Chelsea, 13, and Aaron, 10. Recently he gave $500,000 to Orlando's First Baptist Church, money intended for the church's schools. He was in his prime.
After he won the 1991 Open, Stewart flew all over the world to cash in on his success. Because he was offered large sums of money to make the changes, he switched from forged-blades to investment-cast clubs and from a wound ball to a solid ball. His game suffered. Tracey and the children would go weeks without ever seeing him. When Payne was in Orlando, he was often at the site of the colossal new house he was building, a project that used up much of his time, energy, money and aspirin. His Saturday-night dinners, even during weeks when he was competing, were boisterous and boozy affairs in which the main courses were beer, martinis and red wine. He wasn't hurting anybody, just his golf game. In '94 he finished 123rd on the money list, unimaginable for such a talent. He told friends that he knew so little about the technical aspects of his swing that he didn't know how to right himself.
When Stewart rediscovered his game, beginning in 1997, he didn't find it on the practice tee. "Payne was one of the great feel players of all time," his longtime coach, E. Harvie Ward, said on Monday night, and feel players don't find their secrets in their big-muscle groups. In recent years Stewart started examining his heart, his brain, his nervous system. He learned, for the first time, that he had attention deficit disorder, and knowing that helped him find ways to concentrate better on the course. He helped his mother quit drinking and started watching his own consumption of alcohol. He said he embraced Christianity and the joys of his family. He quit smoking and chewing, until the craving got to be too great. He became a regular in the Tour's exercise trailer. He paid more attention to his friendships, particularly the one he had with Paul Azinger, a cancer survivor. "He was starting to see the things that made him tick," said Richard Coop, a sports psychologist who worked with Stewart. "He was starting to understand himself."
When he won the Open at Pinehurst—the best Open ever, according to a lot of people who go year after year—Stewart said, "I have so much fun being at home, getting up in the morning, making breakfast, taking my kids to school, going to school activities. That's what my life is right now." Payne Stewart brought life and panache to the Tour. He went out on a high note. There's nobody waiting in the wings to take his place. He was unique. He was genuine.