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BILL DWYRE

In U.S. Open history, Payne Stewart remains a capper

The golfer won the 1999 tournament in dramatic style, just months before dying in an air tragedy.

June 16, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Time has a way of always moving on, but never traveling far.

Consider that it has been 10 years since William Payne Stewart, dressed in motoring cap and plus-fours, etched his way into our hearts and minds with a fist pump and leg kick that celebrated his successful 15-foot putt and ended one of the most dramatic U.S. Open golf tournaments ever.

Consider what happened next: Stewart went immediately to the man he beat with his 15-foot putt. He took Phil Mickelson's face in his hands, looked him hard in the eyes and told him that what he was about to experience was much more important than what he had just lost. The next day, Amy Mickelson gave birth to their first child.

Consider that, when they play the U.S. Open this week at Bethpage State Park in New York, one of the leading contenders and biggest stories will be Mickelson, whose wife will soon undergo surgery for breast cancer.

Stewart's gesture that day, as well as his memory, should not go without notice this week.

His death just four months later, when the Learjet he had chartered lost cabin pressure shortly after departure from Orlando, Fla., and flew on with all aboard deceased until it ran out of fuel and crashed in a farm field in Mina, S.D., was bizarre.

His life, 42 years that included 11 PGA Tour wins, three major titles and a personality that elevated his sport, was storybook.

After Stewart was gone, one of his friends and tour competitors, Paul Azinger, said, "If golf is an art, Payne Stewart was the color."

Rick Reilly, then of Sports Illustrated, wrote that Stewart dressed in plus-fours because his father had taught him never to blend in. Reilly added that Stewart carried around a pair of $400 shoes in a special box.

Jim Huber of CNN/SI once visited Stewart's home in Orlando and reported that his massive closet had a seating area in the middle, as well as three picture windows.

Reilly wrote that, at first, Stewart came across as cocky and arrogant, but as he got older and wiser he learned to conduct himself as befit a major sports star.

"He really grooved it at the end," Reilly wrote.

Stewart's father, William, was a bedspring salesman from Springfield, Mo., who taught his son the game. Payne was a fidgety child. Family friend Jim Morris recalls the Morrises and the Stewarts sitting together in the church loft so that Payne's antics wouldn't disrupt the service.

"Once he was diagnosed with ADD [attention deficit disorder] and knew what it was," Morris said, "he handled it fine. Before that, on the golf course, he could hit the toughest shot in the world and then miss the easiest one because he'd lost interest."

Stewart's father died in 1985. Payne won the Bay Hill title in 1987 and donated the winner's check, $108,050, to an Orlando hospital in his father's memory.

When Stewart lost his father, Morris lost his best friend. But Morris also gained somewhat of a surrogate son, and the two became a successful team for the AT&T Pebble Beach pro-am event for seven years.

"Starting in 1993, when we won it," Morris said, "we never finished out of the top six. I've got enough Waterford crystal to last a lifetime."

Morris, now 78 and still an investment executive in Springfield, came all too close to never getting a chance to defend that '93 pro-am title.

"After we finished that year," Morris said, "we drove down the coast, heading to my place in La Quinta. Payne was going to play in the Bob Hope, but we had a game the next day in the desert with Donald Trump. Payne didn't want to miss that, because Trump was always good for a dollar or two. Plus, those New Yorkers tend to be a little proud of their handicaps.

"Payne had had a hot toddy or two, so he went to sleep in the back of my car and my wife and I were in the front and off we went. We got to Pasadena around 2 in the morning and I was having trouble staying awake, so we pulled off at a Jack in the Box. I went into the bathroom to splash water on my face, and when I came out, there was a guy with a gun to my wife's head."

While the world-famous golfer slept in the parking lot, Jim Morris negotiated for his life and that of his wife, Constance.

"I keep a money clip in my right pocket, and I gave them that," Morris said. "They wanted more, so I gave them my billfold from my left pocket."

Morris lost $700 and the world-famous golfer was awakened in the parking lot to red lights and police sirens. The next day, the losses were recovered somewhat on the golf course with Donald Trump.

The last year Morris played with Stewart in the AT&T pro-am was 1999 -- "I was getting too old," Morris said -- and that was the year that Stewart won the event. It was also the year that Stewart, who had won the PGA in '89 and the U.S. Open in '91, made his famous putt and his famous leaning fist-pump on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open. It was late June, Father's Day. When he climbed on that plane Oct. 25, heading to another tournament in Dallas, he was in the prime of his life and career.

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