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THE 105TH U.S. OPEN Thursday-Sunday, Pinehurst, N.C.

Man of a Moment

Memories of Stewart linger at Pinehurst, where he won the 1999 U.S. Open four months before his death in an air disaster

June 12, 2005|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

When Payne Stewart arrived at Pinehurst six years ago for the U.S. Open, he hadn't forgotten what had happened to him at the previous Open. He'd had a four-shot lead to start the last round at San Francisco's Olympic Club but shot 74 and was passed by Lee Janzen, who closed with a 68.

Stewart was unhappy, from the tip of his tam o' shanter to the bottoms of his trademark plus fours, since he had led after each of the first three rounds.

The first thing on his mind was the last thing he talked about at Pinehurst, and then only after his 15-foot uphill putt for par had disappeared into the bottom of the cup on the 72nd hole that Sunday in June 1999, when the 99th U.S. Open ended with a reversal of fortune for 42-year-old Payne Stewart, a major winner again.

"What happened last year at the U.S. Open, all my friends came up and said, 'Boy, you sure tried.... It was a great effort.... You're a great competitor.' I didn't want to hear that, and that motivated me," Stewart said at the time.

Trying, competing weren't good enough for him and if he had not won, he would have considered it falling short, being less a player than he expected of himself.

Stewart has been gone for nearly six years now, the victim of a freakish air disaster, but when the 105th edition of the U.S. Open is played this week on the same Pinehurst No. 2 layout where he bested Phil Mickelson by one shot, there will be plenty of memories.

Just behind the 18th green is a statue of Stewart, pumping his fist as if he were signaling a charge. There will be lofty tributes, kind words and tearful remembrances of a life and career cut short.

The U.S. Open was the 11th and final PGA Tour victory in Stewart's career and his third major title, to go with his 1991 U.S. Open triumph and his first major championship, the 1989 PGA.

Four months later, on Oct. 25, 1999, Stewart, two of his agents, his golf course designer friend and two pilots died when their leased Learjet 35 en route from Orlando to Dallas suddenly lost pressure, veered wildly off course and crashed in swampland in South Dakota.

Stewart was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2001. At that ceremony, Tiger Woods read an accolade. In part, it said, "Payne Stewart's story is an inspiration to anyone who appreciates the spirit of a competitor."

Woods was right. Even if Stewart didn't like being called a great competitor when he lost, the tag fit.

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Stewart was 4 when he started hitting golf balls while tagging along after his father, Bill, in Springfield, Mo. Bill Stewart had won the Missouri State Amateur and the Missouri Senior Amateur. He had also qualified for and played in the 1955 U.S. Open, at the Olympic Club.

Young Payne was quickly hooked on golf. He eventually earned a scholarship to Southern Methodist, where he was co-champion of the Southwest Conference in 1979. He turned pro that year but didn't make it at the PGA Tour qualifying school.

So he did what anybody would do. He went to Asia, played the Asian Tour for two years and won twice. Actually, he won three times. He won two tournaments and when he was at a tournament in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, he met a woman named Tracey Ferguson, who soon became his wife. They were engaged in Singapore and married in 1981 in Southport on Australia's Gold Coast.

He finally made it to the PGA Tour in 1982 and won his first tournament, the Quad Cities Open, with Bill Stewart in the gallery. He won again in 1983, the Walt Disney World, but his father was too ill with cancer to be there. Bill Stewart died two years later.

When Stewart won again at the 1987 Hertz Bay Hill Classic, he donated his check of $108,000 to the Florida Hospitals Golden Circle of Friends in memory of his father.

Despite those successes, the kind of memories Stewart was building were not what he had wished for. He lost four times in playoffs. And in 1985, he could have won both the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills and the British Open at Royal St. George's, but lost the first by two shots and the other by one. He lost the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y., to Raymond Floyd, after leading with six holes left.

Everything changed for Stewart when he won his first major, the 1989 PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes in suburban Chicago, where he was five shots behind with nine holes to play and won by one shot. He won his second major soon after with a playoff victory at the 1991 U.S. Open at Hazeltine in Chaska, Minn., coming from two shots behind with three holes to play to catch Scott Simpson.

He battled swing problems and injuries the next few years, but rebounded when he found faith. He and Tracey grew closer and Payne began wearing a "WWJD" bracelet, for "What Would Jesus Do," given to him by his son, Aaron. The Stewarts also had a daughter, Chelsea.

In 1995, he scored a victory at the Shell Houston Open, and then really seemed to find his game when he won the 1999 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

The U.S. Open at Pinehurst was four months away.

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