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Playing With Payne
Gary Van Sickle
November 08, 1999
Coming to grips with the death of Payne Stewart cast a pall over Tiger Woods's win at the Tour Championship
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November 08, 1999

Playing With Payne

Coming to grips with the death of Payne Stewart cast a pall over Tiger Woods's win at the Tour Championship

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AGE

EVENTS

WINS

MAJORS

TOP 10s

SCORING AVG.

POP

1. Jack Nicklaus, '72

31

19

7

2

14

70.23

15.77

2. Arnold Palmer, '63

33

20

7

0

14

70.63

13.48

3. Jack Nicklaus, '71

30

17

5

1

15

70.08

12.73

4. Jack Nicklaus, '75

34

16

5

2

14

69.87

12.04

5. Jack Nicklaus, '73

32

18

7

1

16

69.81

11.96

6. Johnny Miller, '74

26

21

8

0

12

70.10

11.73

7. Arnold Palmer, '62

32

21

7

2

13

70.27

10.62

8. Tiger Woods, '99

23

20

7

1

15

69.56

10.02

9. Jack Nicklaus, '76

35

16

2

0

11

70.17

8.91

10. Jack Nicklaus, '65

24

20

5

1

17

70.09

8.89

Last Thursday in Houston a silence as thick as the early-morning fog hung over the somber crowd gathered at the 1st tee of the Champions Club. A lone bagpiper, unseen in the distance, broke the eerie spell with the first notes of the mournful Scottish tune Going Home. As the piper slowly marched toward the assembly, his music grew louder, and then, as if on cue, he appeared in the drifting mist. When the piper had finished, an emotional memorial service was held for Payne Stewart, who along with five others had died three days earlier in a plane crash. Twenty minutes later the most unforgettable Tour Championship ever began, or tried to.

The week was filled with a chaotic mix of shock and sadness, respect and regret, remembrances and celebrations, tears and toughness. The actual competition was equally unbalanced: The 29 golfers in the elite field—Stewart's spot was not filled—played 27 holes on both Thursday and Saturday so that they could attend Stewart's memorial service in Orlando on Friday. In the end the only thing about the event that seemed normal was that Tiger Woods was the guy who won it. Woods's victory, by four strokes over Davis Love III, was his third straight and seventh on Tour this year, the most in a season since Johnny Miller won eight times in 1974.

Until Sunday, though, the golf was an afterthought. The news of Stewart's death on Monday, Oct. 25, had hit the Tour hard. Commissioner Tim Finchem was on a teleconference call announcing that Buy.com had taken over as sponsor of the Nike tour when he was told that something was dreadfully wrong aboard Stewart's Lear-jet. David Duval heard about a plane flying aimlessly on autopilot, its passengers presumably dead or unconscious, as he was having lunch at the Champions Club, but he didn't know that Stewart was thought to be on it until he crossed the room to sign in for the tournament and a volunteer told him. Jeff Sluman, at home in Chicago, fielded calls from concerned friends. "They knew I had been in Orlando the day before, and since at that point nobody knew who was on the plane, they were calling to see if I was home," Sluman said. "It was terrible watching it unfold, praying and hoping it wasn't somebody you knew."

Andy Martinez, Tom Lehman's caddie, was about to board a flight from Dallas to Houston when he learned that the wayward jet in the news was co-owned by Stewart and that it would crash when its fuel ran out. "I wobbled onto the plane," Martinez said. "I was woozy." Brian Sullivan, who caddies for Jeff Maggert, was at Champions walking off yardages with Stewart's caddie, Mike Hicks, when Hicks's cell phone rang. According to Sullivan, Hicks kept repeating "Oh, my god" and then ran off the course. "I knew then it was serious news," Sullivan said.

The Tour made the pro-am on Oct. 26 optional for the players, yet more than 20 of them showed up anyway and played at least some holes with the amateurs who would have been their partners. Woods played all 18, saying that getting on the course helped him take his mind off the tragedy. The atmosphere, however, was surreal. "When we got to the course, it was so silent," Woods said. "It was eerie—nobody was asking for autographs or clamoring for pictures. It was real quiet. Even on the range guys were hitting and nobody was talking." In the players' parking lot next to the clubhouse, a ribbon was placed on the spot assigned to Stewart. Soon, a shrine of flowers, signs and messages adorned the empty space, to which fans were drawn all week.

There was talk of canceling the event before Tour official Ben Nelson came up with the idea of playing 27 holes on Thursday and Saturday and leaving Friday open. Some players who attended Thursday's emotional memorial wondered if they would be able to handle a funeral, too. Soon after the service, which was held on the 1st tee, Justin Leonard asked Love when he was going to leave for Orlando. "I might go in a little while," he replied. Said Fred Funk, "The service was as much emotion as I've ever felt. I couldn't stop crying. Jeff Sluman asked me, 'If we couldn't deal with this, how are we going to deal with the funeral?' "

On the course the players seemed to be going through the motions. Love was the only player to break 100 over the 27 holes on Thursday, shooting a seven-under 99 to take a one-shot lead over Woods, and fought his emotions every step of the way. "I had a tough time gathering up enough emotion to even play," Love said. "I hit a beautiful six-iron shot off the dirt at the 14th—a great shot—but you know what, I didn't care. Part of me said we shouldn't be playing and the other part said we needed to be out there. I chastised myself every time I had fun or got excited. It was a crazy range of emotions."

Leonard said he was on the verge of tears several times during his round, and Love got so choked up when he saw an airplane circling the course with a banner reading WE WILL REMEMBER YOU, PAYNE that he had to wait several minutes to attempt a short putt. "That's when it really hit home," he said. "You shouldn't be out there playing golf with tears in your eyes."

All the players paid tribute to Stewart in one way or another. Matt Griesser, the actor who plays Sign Boy in the FootJoy commercials, wrote Stewart's initial's on Love's hat. Love also carried a swatch of tartan cloth and some sand from Iwo Jima that a patriotic fan had given to the members of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Many players wore black ribbons. Duffy Waldorf, who is known for the colorful markings he puts on his golf balls, instead wrote inscriptions about Stewart on them.

No one made a more dramatic statement than Bob Estes. Dressed in black, Estes hit his opening tee shot with a putter, tapping his ball about 15 feet—symbolic, he said, of Stewart's winning putt of the same length on the final hole of this summer's U.S. Open. Estes, who made a double bogey on the hole, caught everyone by surprise, even his playing partner, Brent Geiberger. "I had a hard time hitting after what Bob did," said Geiberger. "He felt that he needed to do that for Payne. I thought it was nice."

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