By Payne Stewart's Standards, the outfit he wore the other night at Comiskey Park in Chicago was drab. Gray trousers with orange-and-black piping, gathered below the knee. Black-and-white over-the-calf hose. Black shoes trimmed in orange and white. A black shirt with a gaudy orange-and-white logo splashed across the chest.
Stewart, the PGA Tour player from Springfield, Mo., who is famous for his neon knickers, matching caps and lizardskin shoes, looked uncomfortable in a practice uniform of the visiting Baltimore Orioles. He stood near the White Sox dugout before the game, watching some players sign autographs for fans at the railing. No one gave him a second look until a man in the crowd yelled to his friends, "Don't you know who that is? That's Payne Stewart, the golfer."
And then a hundred hands reached toward Stewart with programs and baseballs to sign. His cover was blown.
You assume it was the outfit, but maybe those fans didn't recognize Stew ail without his stoic face on—the expression he reserves for the aftermath of golfing kicks to the groin. A month ago a stunned Stewart watched as his imminent victory at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, went down the cup with Paul Azinger's amazing hole-out from a bunker on the final hole. Two weeks later, at Baltusrol in New Jersey, a disbelieving Stewart stood by as young Lee Janzen sank a miracle chip-in on the tournament's final day, denying the Knickered One his second U.S. Open title. In each case Stewart conducted himself admirably, praising the victor and shrugging off the vagaries of fate. Still, it's hard to look your best with all the blood drained out of your face and a bad case of Greg Norman's Disease.
There's no need for hushed tones when you broach the subject to Stewart, a 12-year Tour veteran. "I am disappointed, yes, because I haven't won this year," Stewart said last Thursday, after shooting 71 in the first round of the Western Open, at Cog Hill in Lemont, Ill. "But I've been beaten. I haven't beaten myself. At the Open I made only five bogies all week. And Paul beat me with an incredible shot." Clearly, Stewart doesn't want anybody to resurrect his old nickname, Avis, which he earned by finishing second 13 times and losing five of five playoffs in his first nine years on the Tour.
But as he prepares for next week's British Open, at Royal St. George, Stewart remains sanguine about his recent travails simply because they have been so much less testing than last year's travails. In 1992, Stewart—bearing his '91 Open victory at Hazeltine National like a grandfather clock strapped to his back—had his worst year since his rookie season, winning nothing, threatening no one and falling to 44th on the money list. He missed the cut at the Masters, wallowed in a 51st-place tie in the Open at Pebble Beach, tied for 34th at the British Open and finished in a dreary four-way tic for 69th at the PGA Championship.
Stewart dates his difficulties to Hazel-tine, where he beat Scott Simpson in an 18-hole playoff. With victories in two majors under his belt—he also won the 1989 PGA Championship when Mike Reid collapsed at the finish—Stewart began to fancy himself the sort of player who, like Jack Nicklaus, regards regular Tour events as mere tune-ups. Moreover, worried that he had a fundamentally unsound, if picturesque, loop in his swing, he tinkered with his classic stroke and tried swinging back and through on an ideal plane, as Nick Faldo does. Notoriously freewheeling (for example, Stewart used to walk around with acupuncture needles in his ears), he sought to put Tom Kite-like structure in his life. Discipline, schedules, attention to detail. He tried them all.
Naturally, he tied himself in knots. "I just got too conscious of my swing," he says, "and I couldn't play." He also got to the point where he was playing an event like Tucson National but thinking about Augusta National, and that didn't work, either, "I felt I could be better by doing these things," he says, "but I lost my focus."
These days Stewart is clearly back at the top of his game. He has played 20 tournaments since January—which is a lot—and although he hasn't won yet, he is fourth on the money list, at $810,524, and has three second-place, three third-place and 10 top-10 finishes. He leads the Tour's All-Around statistical category: he has moved up to No. 3 on the career money list, behind Kite and Tom Watson, with $6 million and change; and he has harvested enough Ryder Cup points to ensure his fourth straight appearance on the U.S. team later this summer. "He's got to feel great about this year," says former Masters champ Ben Crenshaw. "He put a lot of pressure on himself to make the team again, and he showed great character in doing so."
Is this a new Payne Stewart? Or the old Payne Stewart?