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Coming Together
Jaime Diaz
November 08, 1999
In a time of trouble, the pros were there for one of their own
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November 08, 1999

Coming Together

In a time of trouble, the pros were there for one of their own

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There was no lone bagpiper disappearing into the early-morning mist as there had been the day before during a ceremony at the Tour Championship, but there was a larger sense of occasion last Friday when Payne Stewart's memorial service was held in Orlando. More than 3,000 mourners, including about 100 pro golfers, attended the service at cavernous First Baptist Church, while millions more watched on television.

The items on display in the front of the church—there was no casket—reflected great feats and small but endearing moments: Stewart's trophies from the U.S. Open, the PGA and the Ryder Cup alongside his harmonica and the set of buck teeth he would sometimes pop in his mouth as a joke. Three rows were filled with the members of his son Aaron's Pop Warner football team, in full uniform, and as Paul Azinger began his eulogy, he donned a tam-o'-shanter and tucked his pants legs into the knee-length argyle socks he had borrowed from Stewart's closet. Most striking, though, was the sense of community displayed by the golfers, rare in a sport that demands insularity and independence.

In honor of Stewart, the Tour had shut down the Tour Championship and the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in Madison, Miss., for the day, and everyone in the 29-man field in Houston, except Notah Begay, John Huston and Ted Tryba, made the journey to Orlando, while about 40 of the 131 players in Mississippi came. Stewart's teammates on this year's Ryder Cup team walked into the church together. Several other pros, including Fred Couples, Ben Crenshaw, Peter Jacobsen, Tom Kite, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Jesper Parnevik, Sam Snead, Lanny Wadkins and Tom Watson, also attended. (Notably absent was Orlando resident Arnold Palmer, whose wife, Winnie, is seriously ill with cancer.) Looking out over the gathering, Stewart's wife, Tracey, said, "Payne would have been so proud."

The large turnout defined—to a degree that surprised even the attendees—the unspoken bond among the players. "In the end we are all part of the same deal," said Wadkins. "We try to beat each other's brains out, but we know each other's families and we share the same hopes and dreams. We're closer than we know."

Stewart was one of the lucky princes of the sport, blessed with talent, wealth, a loving family and, at 42, a second U.S. Open title. For most of his career he had been known as a fun-loving character with a big heart but a bigger ego. "For many years it seemed that Payne Stewart was first in Payne Stewart's life," said Azinger. But in the last few years, he added, the annoying kid had finally grown into a caring and admired man. That transformation intensified the sense of loss at his sudden death.

Azinger's remembrance was full of levity. He related how the mechanically challenged Stewart blew the engine in his bass boat by running it in the garage, and how Stewart would ask another player, "Did you get a free bowl of soup with that hat?" if that player's cap did not meet his fashion standards. But at the end, Azinger's voice broke, and he could barely be heard to say, "Goodbye, Payne." When the two-hour service came to a close, the players lined the center aisle as the Stewart family, including Payne's mother, Bee, were led out to the strains of Amazing Grace. Several players cried, others dabbed at their eyes, and all hugged the Stewarts and each other.

Afterward the guests lingered and the stories flowed. Friends chuckled when they recalled how proud Stewart had been when he was told that after meeting him, Princess Stephanie of Monaco had remarked, "That Payne Stewart, he's quite the cat's meow." Wadkins remembered a deep-sea fishing trip during which Stewart wolfed down a cheeseburger in front of an extremely seasick Crenshaw, just to see if he could get Crenshaw to run for the rail. His Ryder Cup mates spoke of Stewart's 5:30 a.m. wake-up call in the team hotel: Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA at full volume. Jacobsen, who together with Stewart and Mark Lye made up Jake Trout and the Flounders, recounted how, during a recording session, a studio technician went up to Stewart and pleaded, "Payne, I'm begging you. Don't sing."

Other glimpses were more intimate. Lamar Haynes, a teammate at SMU, remembered that during this year's U.S. Open, Stewart took time to call Haynes's mother, Nell, on the eve of an operation to remove her larynx. "Payne said, 'Nell, I just wanted to hear your beautiful voice one more time.' "

Last Friday, everyone—even that studio technician—longed to hear Stewart's sweet, high-pitched voice once again.