Traveling with Stewart were the two top executives at Leader Enterprises, 46-year-old Robert Fraley and 45-year-old Van Ardan, who had arranged the Dallas meeting and had chartered the plane for the trip. They were not only Stewart's business representatives but also two of his best friends. Stewart had been a Leader client since 1985. Fraley was the godfather to Stewart's two children: daughter Chelsea, now 14, and son Aaron, now 11.
Stewart had been scheduled to appear at a one-day celebrity tournament for Charities for Children at Orlando's Bay Hill Golf Club on Oct. 25, but he had dropped out to make the meeting in Texas. The scheduling made sense because he was due to play in the Tournament of Champions in Houston the next week. He and Fraley and Ardan planned to talk with the developers in Dallas in the afternoon, then travel on to Houston at night. Ardan would return to Orlando on Tuesday. Fraley would continue on to Los Angeles to meet with Frank Thomas, then to Seattle to talk with Seahawks defensive lineman Cortez Kennedy.
There was a good chance that Stewart would spend time in Houston with the Rockets' Charles Barkley. He and Stewart had become friends at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. "Payne really wanted to go to the Olympics that year," Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough, friend to both Stewart and Fraley, says. "I was working at the Games for NBC, and he asked if I could help him with tickets. It worked out great. He wound up playing golf just about every day with the players from the Dream Team. He had a blast. He became known as the Official PGA Pro of the Dream Team.
"He played a lot with Michael Jordan. I asked him one day how good Jordan was. He said Jordan was pretty good but always wanted to bet big money on the matches, and he didn't want to do that, take the money. He did it, but he didn't like it. On just about the last day of the Games, he played again with Jordan. I asked what Jordan had shot. Payne said, 'Seventy-two.' I said, 'Whoa. Jordan must have got a lot of that money back.' I asked Payne what he'd shot. He said, 'Sixty-four.' "
His swing always had been beautiful—free and easy yet precise. His head had caught up with his swing in recent years. Seen sometimes as cocky and abrasive early in his rise to golf success, this young guy from Springfield, Mo., in weird domes had become a strong family man in early middle age, close to his wife, Tracey, their two children and his church. He seemed happier than he ever had been—renewed, rein-vigorated. He had started the '99 season without a golf-equipment endorsement deal, by his choice. He purchased clubs from a local discount warehouse, a mixed set of Titleist woods and Mizuno irons, and made his unendorsed comeback.
A symbol of his born-again faith was the yellow WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelet that he wore, a gift from his son. Payne wore it for all four rounds when he won the Open.
Fraley and Ardan also were churchgoers, Christian businessmen, tough at times but fair and honest. Fraley, a quarterback on the Alabama football team that went through the 1973 regular season unbeaten and played for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl, was the founder of Leader Enterprises. He had been a tax lawyer in Lakeland, Fla., but was drawn into sports management when he started handling the affairs of a bunch of former Alabama athletes. He started Leader in 1985. Ardan, a stockbroker from MacLean, Va., joined the firm in 1990. He oversaw much of the golf business.
Hershiser, a Leader client from the beginning, says he and his wife, Jamie, "relied on Robert for almost everything. A lot of our conversations had phrases like 'What does Robert think?' 'Have you talked to Robert?' 'You sound like Robert.' 'Call Robert.' Robert was very reserved, but over the years he opened up to me. We were so close that one day [his wife] Dixie told me that he loved me like a brother."
"They were both fantastic to me," Jim McGovern, a 35-year-old golfer from Oradell, N.J., who is usually found in the back of the PGA pack, says of Fraley and Ardan. "I didn't have any representation—just my father—and Bill Parcells, who's a New Jersey guy, recommended me to Robert and Van. They treated Jim McGovern the same way they treated Payne Stewart or Paul Azinger. They called me all the time. They got me endorsements, invitations. They didn't fool around in business, but they were good people."
The final passenger on the plane was 40-year-old golf-course architect Bruce Borland. He was a late addition. Stewart's caddie, Mike Hicks, had been scheduled to make the trip, but when Stewart missed the cut at the Disney Classic the previous week, Hicks was free to drive with his wife, Meg, to their home in Mebane, N.C., for a few days. He would meet Stewart in Houston. This opened up a seat for Borland.