A MATE'S MEMORY OF PAYNE'S OPEN VICTORY AT PINEHURST

A MATE'S MEMORY OF PAYNE'S OPEN VICTORY AT PINEHURST

From Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul The Second Round

A Mate’s Memory of Payne’s

Open Victory at Pinehurst

It’s great to win, but it’s also great fun just to be in the thick of any truly well and hard-fought contest against opponents you respect, whatever the outcome.

Jack Nicklaus

Although Payne and I rarely talked during a round, he always wanted me to be there as often as possible, and he claimed to know exactly where I was on the course at all times.

“Aren’t you supposed to be concentrating on your golf?” I’d tease.

“I am, but I always know where you are, ” he said.

The U.S. Open crowds at Pinehurst were so huge by Saturday that I knew I wouldn’t be able to see Payne’s shots. I told him, “I think I’m going to watch the round on television today. I’ll be there, though, when you get done.”

I stayed glued to the television most of the afternoon. I rarely played golf—tennis is more my game—but I had watched Payne play for twenty years, so I knew his game well. As I watched, I noticed that Payne was moving his head ever so slightly on his putts, forward and upward, as though he were trying to watch the ball go into the hole. I watched helplessly as one putt after another failed to drop. “Oh, Payne!” I cried aloud to the television screen. “Keep your head down!” He ended up shooting a 72, his worst round of the championship. Though he was still one stroke ahead of Phil Mickelson, it wasn’t a comfortable lead to sleep on.

After his round, I headed to the golf course. “I’m going to go hit some balls, ” he said.

“Okay, I’ll go with you, ” I said. “You need to spend some time on the putting green, too.” Payne nodded in agreement. “You need to keep your head down, ” I continued quietly.

Payne looked surprised.

“Really?”

“You’re trying to watch the ball go in, rather than keeping your head down.”

After hitting balls, he spent forty-five minutes working on the practice green. He forced himself to keep his head still and not look up until the ball was well away from the putter. He got to the point where he was putting with his eyes closed and hitting the center of the cup on almost every stroke.

Later, we returned to the home we were renting. Because our daughter, Chelsea, was at a basketball camp, we couldn’t talk to her, but Payne called our son, Aaron, at his friend’s home.

“Aaron, I’m leading the U.S. Open again!” Payne said.

Aaron, ten, was unimpressed. “That’s great, Dad, ” he replied. “Guess what! Conner got a long-board skateboard!”

Payne laughed. Unwittingly, our kids had a marvelous way of keeping Payne’s feet on the ground, and he loved them all the more for it.

With the television blaring Sunday morning, and Payne on his cell phone, I went to take a shower. When I came out of the bedroom, I was shocked to see that Payne’s eyes were puffy. He looked as if he had been crying.

“Luv’ie, what’s wrong?” I asked. Payne wiped his eyes with his knuckle and motioned toward the television. “NBC just ran a Father’s Day segment, ” he said. “It was about my dad and me.” Payne had been unaware that NBC had planned to broadcast a segment concerning Bill Stewart—Payne’s dad, who had died of cancer in 1985—and his influence upon Payne’s life and career. Payne had been tuning in to watch the early tournament coverage. As he watched the video of himself and his dad, tears flooded his eyes.

Rather than being disconcerted, Payne drew strength from the piece, inspiring him to want to play his best Father’s Day round ever.

Eventually the time came to head to the course. Because of the damp, chilly weather, Payne had donned a rain jacket, but when Payne began to warm up, he felt the sleeves of the rain jacket tugging at his arms. The sleeves were restricting Payne’s long, fluid swing, yet because of the weather, he needed the warmth the raingear provided.

“Get me a pair of scissors, Mike, ” Payne asked his caddie, Mike Hicks. Mike found a pair in the golf shop, and Payne proceeded to cut the sleeves off the jacket, trimming the garment so that it covered his shoulders and about three inches down his arms. Although Payne was known for his sartorial splendor on the golf course, he was not concerned about appearances today. All that mattered was playing his best.

After the ups and downs of a final round, Phil Mickelson approached the green on the final hole facing a twenty-foot birdie putt. If Phil made it, Payne would have to make his fifteen-footer to force a playoff. For a moment, it looked as though Phil’s putt was in, but then it rolled off and stopped a few inches to the right of the hole.

Now it was Payne’s turn. He slowly went through his pre-putt routine, crouching low, eyeing every undulation in the putting surface, lining up the putt. Finally, he stood, pulled the putter back evenly, and brought it forward firmly but smoothly, aiming just to the left inside edge of the cup. The blade connected with the ball, sending it toward the hole. Payne did not move his head.

From my vantage point, I couldn’t see the hole. I saw Payne’s ball rolling as if in slow motion, bumping over the spike marks, each one a potential land mine that could knock the ball off course. On line, curving slightly, bending; the ball seemed suspended in time, the logo turning over and over, still rolling . . . and then, suddenly, the ball disappeared.

The huge crowd at Pinehurst exploded. It was one of the loudest—and best—responses that I’d ever heard. Payne picked his ball out of the cup, kissed it and slid it into his pocket. This was one ball he would want to keep.

On the side of the green, I pushed to the front of the crowd gathered inside the roped-off area where the players exit the green. Roger Maltbie, the NBC announcer and an old friend of Payne’s and mine, spotted me and we hugged. We were both too choked up to speak, and the crowd noise was so loud, it’s doubtful that we could have heard each other anyhow. But it didn’t matter. Words were unnecessary. Awash in an incredible sense of relief, tears of joy seemed the only appropriate response.

Payne was walking toward me. Because of the throng, he didn’t see me at first, and nearly walked right past.

He pulled me close, and we embraced on the green. With my head buried in his shoulder, I heard him say in my ear, “I did it. I kept my head down. All day . . . all day, I did it. I kept my head down.”

Through my tears, I said, “I know you did, and I’m so proud of you!”

Many people were amazed at how Payne handled losing the 1998 U.S. Open and winning the 1999 Open with equal measures of grace. Members of the media and some of his fellow competitors were intrigued. Something was different about Payne Stewart. Oh, sure, he was still Payne—spontaneous, outspoken, extremely confident and always wearing his emotions on his sleeve. He still loved a good party, and he’d still tell you what he thought about a subject if you asked him—or even if you didn’t. He still worked hard, played hard and loved passionately. Yet people who knew Payne well recognized that he had changed somehow for the better, if that were possible. He possessed a deeper, unusual sense of peace . . . a peace that hadn’t always been there.

Tracey Stewart

with Ken Abraham

[EDITORS’ NOTE: Oct. 25, 1999—A runaway Learjet partly owned by golfing great Payne Stewart crashed in Edmunds County, South Dakota. Payne Stewart perished in the accident.]

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