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Payne Free At Last
Rick Reilly
June 24, 1991
Payne Stewart's U.S. Open playoff victory cured his aching back and reputation
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June 24, 1991

Payne Free At Last

Payne Stewart's U.S. Open playoff victory cured his aching back and reputation

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Yeah, that dude in the gallery was right, you are the man, Payne Stewart! You stared choke in the face and you bit off its nose! You are the champ! Twice you were two strokes down with three holes left and the national championship slipping through your golf glove, and twice you hung on like Velcro, once just to stay alive and once to win.

O.K., so the very accommodating Scott Simpson made eight very accommodating bogeys in Monday's 18-hole playoff to grease the rails a little, but they won't engrave that on the trophy, right? You outlasted the bad neck and the bad back and the bad head and the bad bogeys, and you won. You did it with rubdowns and shrinks and chiropractors, and by sleeping in your son's bed and sleeping in a neck brace and playing in a weird corset and even talking out loud to yourself. You showed us something new, Payne Stewart. You showed us something courageous.

Everybody knew what the rap against Stewart was coming into last week's U.S. Open at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. Even Stewart admitted that Ray Floyd stared a hole in him when Stewart was leading the Open in the final round at Shinnecock five years ago. Of course, Floyd won. Stewart's greatest charge to victory, in the 1989 PGA Championship, was more like a midnight slink up the back staircase; he won with a soda in his hand while watching Mike Reid bogey 16 and double-bogey 17. But last week, Stewart had a shiny resilience. For once, his attention span was longer than his knickers. "I've never seen you so focused," Greg Norman told him on Friday.

Two months ago, Stewart was in such disrepair he couldn't lift a two-pound weight over his head. But on Monday he was lifting the silver trophy over it, as the the winner by two shots in a last-man-with-his-shirt-still-on playoff over a course that was only slightly harder than trigonometry. And when he had won, when he had literally talked himself into making a four-foot par putt on 18 that he could've lagged, it was hard to say who was crying more, Stewart or his wife, Tracey. "This means so much," he said. "I'm as good as I thought I was going to be."

For 15 holes on Monday, he did not look very good at all. Neither did Simpson. Stewart made four bogeys and no birdies in that stretch, and Simpson had five bogeys and three birdies, one on a 20-foot putt on the 14th hole that, had it not gone in, might have wound up in Wisconsin. Not that Stewart wasn't blessed. On the par-3 8th, he bounced his ball off a submerged rock in a lake and onto dry land. "That was a lucky break," said Simpson. Are you kidding? Your Hazeltine locals always play that rock.

As the two men stood on the 16th tee, Simpson must have felt an awful sense of dread. Two shots up with three to play, just like the day before. Only this time, Simpson put his drive in the middle of the fairway and his second shot in the center of the green, while Stewart hung a one-iron on the right edge of the fairway, leaving him a gritty eight-iron that he had to get over a tree and close to the pin. With 18 feet to go, Stewart hit a putt that was much too hard—but dead in the hole.

A golf ball falling in a hole shouldn't make the earth shake, but it did under Simpson's shoes. He missed his four-footer for par, and suddenly it was a two-hole U.S. Open. Stewart's five-iron to the par-3 17th was lovely, to within 18 feet, but that's when Scott Simpson decided to swing like Homer Simpson. His four-iron waffled left and drowned in a pond. He salvaged a bogey, but he trailed by one.

Both players missed the fairway on 18. As Stewart was setting up to hit from the right bunker, he could hear a voice over a course marshal's walkie-talkie say, "Let's get the pin set for the first playoff hole." So Stewart gave himself a good talking to: "I said, 'Just stand in here and hit this shot, and there won't be a playoff hole.' " He did, but his shot missed the green, just as Simpson's would. Simpson was faced with a downhill 15-foot chip. "I knew I had to hole it," he said. He didn't, and when his comeback putt missed, Stewart could've two-putted with his putter grip.

While it's true that Stewart's 75 was the worst winning score in a U.S. Open playoff since 1927—and there have been 30 playoffs since 1901, including four in the past eight years—it was two shots better than Simpson's round. "It's really disappointing to lose the U.S. Open two days in a row," said Simpson, who has won the Open once, in 1987. Over the five rounds at Hazeltine, he played the last three holes in eight over par, while Stewart played them in one under.

But if some people want to call this Open a Simpson Trophy Sale, they ought not say so around Stewart. "I played my ass off today," he said.

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