A recent text nearly made me jump out of my chair. Luckily, I have the balance of a professional tightrope walker (I’m lying) or I might have had to file an insurance claim (I’m not lying).
The text was the picture of a book, “Payne Stewart’s Last Stand: The Year Golf Changed Forever” (I’m still not lying).
The author is Kevin Robbins, a long-time sportswriter for the Austin American-Statesman in Texas. He called me two years ago to discuss everything I could remember about Payne in 1999, which was embarrassingly little aside from notes and articles I wrote for Sports Illustrated that year.
I’d forgotten about the book until I saw the text, which got me excited. The Stewart book is out now, sort of. It’s available for pre-order at Amazon.com for $28, for October delivery. “I didn’t know they did pre-sales that far in advance,” Robbins said jokingly.
Based on the highlights of my interview with the author, I’m confident it’s going to be a compelling read. My 28 bucks is in the mail. I hope Amazon still takes cash.
Gary Van Sickle: What gave you the idea to do a book on Payne Stewart?
Kevin Robbins: I can trace it back to November of 2016. It was a Saturday night, and I was browsing the Internet on my computer. I found the National Transportation Safety Board’s final
report on Flight N47BA, which was Payne Stewart’s Learjet. That report was finalized after the other books on Payne had been published, so it felt fresh. There was so much detail, analysis and reflection in that report that I didn’t know about. There have been two Payne biographies. I didn’t want to go that direction. I began thinking about the final year of his life. It was a great professional comeback for him at age 42. He hadn’t won in five years, and when he did win in Houston in ’95, it was because Scott Hoch threw up a six-shot lead with nine holes to go, so he kind of backed into that one. I wanted to do a season narrative on his life, his personal redemption, his comeback, a story that begins with the 1998 U.S. Open at Olympic Club and ends at the Tour Championship that Tiger Woods won after Payne died the Monday before the event.
GVS: A lot was written about how Payne found religion that last year. I thought his golf comeback hinged on finding a putter that worked, which is like finding religion for a golfer.
KR: That’s true. Payne got that SeeMore putter that year. He was never a really good putter; that always held him back. That’s why he never contended at Augusta and why he didn’t like the course. The greens humiliated him.
GVS: The greens exposed the weakest part of his game. Kind of like Rory McIlroy at the Masters.
KR: There’s another parallel with Rory. Payne switched balls and clubs after he won the ’91 U.S. Open. Rory did something similar. That’s another reason Payne didn’t win for so long.
GVS: Payne wasn’t an instant success on the PGA Tour when he first started, either, if I recall.
KR: It took him a while to win. He didn’t win in college [at Southern Methodist] until the second semester of his senior year; then he won three times. He went over to play in Asia and Australia for two years because he needed three tries to get through the PGA Tour’s Q-School. He won twice in Asia, and that’s where he met his wife, Tracey.
He won the 1982 Magnolia Open, opposite the Masters. Back then, it didn’t count as an official victory. Then, he won at Quad Cities. That was the only time his dad saw him win a pro tournament, because his dad got cancer shortly after that and died.
GVS: Among the 80-plus people you interviewed, who surprised you the most?
KR: Hal Sutton. In one of my three interviews with him, it was a crappy, cloudy, 50-degree day, and he was in a reflective mood. We talked about the 1999 Ryder Cup that the U.S. won in a remarkable comeback after being down 10-6. Hal said he and Payne were the last two people up Saturday night in the team room, and they were the last two people still up Sunday night after they won. Even though their careers kind of paralleled each other and they usually lockered near each other, Hal didn’t know Payne very well. But at Brookline that weekend, they got to know each other on a soul level. They made plans. Payne was going to take Hal fishing, and Hal was going to take Payne horseback riding. Payne had never ridden a horse. They also made a pact that if either of them ever became Ryder Cup captain, the other would be their first vice captain. They bonded over this 48-hour period.
GVS: I never read anything about Hal and Payne being close.
KR: They weren’t until September of ’99. Then in October, Payne was gone.
GVS: That was quite a Ryder Cup, wasn’t it?
KR: The team meeting Saturday night is a big set piece in the book. They’re down, 10-6, and they probably believed it was over. Hal explained how they went around the table, player by player, wife by wife, and talked about what the Ryder Cup meant to them and what their teammates meant to them. Hal said he got to a place he’d never been before with golfers, maybe only with his family. Golf is such an individual sport; you’re always looking out for yourself, and by baring your soul to another player, you might be giving them your secret, whatever it is. Well, this session created a bond. The old guys all let themselves go to this place – Payne, Hal and Mark O’Meara, plus Tom Lehman. Tiger and Phil Mickelson and David Duval didn’t go there. I spoke with Lehman and Davis Love and Justin Leonard. They all confirmed the story. That’s one of the amazing moments in the book.
GVS: It’s hard to picture the Payne I remember baring his soul, but he was a different guy in 1999, for the better.
KR: There were sides to Payne. We all know the story how he donated his entire check to a children’s hospital when he won at Bay Hill in 1987. After Paul Azinger got cancer, Payne consistently drove from Orlando to Bradenton, where Paul lived, to go fishing with Paul. Payne didn’t interrogate him about cancer and assure him he was going to be OK. He just hung out with him. I could tell that really meant something to Paul. Another story was Payne’s caddie, Mike Hicks. Payne put him on a salary, and Hicks said he was unaware of any other Tour caddie with a deal like that. After Mike’s wife got pregnant with their first child, Mike was at Payne’s farm in Springfield, Mo., and Payne encouraged Hicks to take some time off. Ultimately, Hicks never did, but Payne promised to continue to pay his salary if he did.
GVS: Did you find out anything about Payne’s final flight that surprised you?
KR: That NTSB report is 1,500 pages long. There are video links to cockpit cameras from military planes that escorted the plane all the way to South Dakota, where it ran out of gas and crashed. What was most haunting, and I hate to say gripping, were transcripts of the communications that day. The jet was flying north from Orlando to Cross City, Fla., where it was supposed to take a left and head toward Love Field in Dallas. It kept going straight. Air-traffic control in Jacksonville told the pilot to go to 39,000 feet, its planned cruising altitude. The first officer acknowledged that instruction. That was the last radio contact anyone had with the flight. Jacksonville air traffic, military pilots and even other commercial aircraft were all trying to reach N47BA. The transcripts of all those communications are exhaustive. At one point, a pilot for Cubana Airlines tries to reach the jet, and there’s no reply. Jacksonville asks, “Did you hear anything?” “No,” the Cubana pilot says. There’s a pause and Jacksonville says, “I think we have a dead pilot in the air.” Everything changed then. Reading those reports that night, knowing how the day was going to end, was haunting. I know this is really stupid, but as I read, I kept hoping somebody in that Learjet would answer.
GVS: Well, we’re used to characters escaping impossible life-or-death situations in the movies. Reality is different.
KR: In the book’s last four chapters, I flip back and forth between the fatal flight and the Tour Championship in Houston, where 29 players arrive for the lucrative season-ending event and there’s one empty clubhouse parking space, where Payne’s car is supposed to be. Once everyone learned what happened, that parking spot became a memorial on Monday afternoon. People put out flowers, poems and candles. It was eerie.
GVS: It was a stunning news day, where major networks broke into shows with updates. It reminded me of the O.J. Simpson chase because it was an ongoing saga on live TV. At the memorial service, Zinger poignantly joked how Payne would have loved this kind of national attention, except for the way it ended.
KR: At Champions, PGA Tour vice president Henry Hughes called an emergency staff meeting in a trailer. They talked about canceling the tournament. They immediately canceled the Tuesday pro-am. They created space in the parking lot for more news trucks, more phone lines and seats in the media room for the additional reporters who’d be coming. They’re in the middle of this story, responding to the death of someone they knew well and at the same time, they’re doing their jobs so the media can do its job. Something like that seemed insignificant at the time, but in a story about the whole week, I think it is significant.
GVS: Payne wasn’t the only passenger on the plane. Wasn’t someone a late addition for the flight?
KR: That was Bruce Borland, an architect for Jack Nicklaus. Payne was going to look at a golf property in Dallas on his way to Houston, and the Nicklaus people said, we’d like to send Bruce out; we’ll put him on a commercial flight. A few calls were made and he was told, don’t bother. Payne’s plane seats eight; there’s plenty of room. So, Borland got a seat. The guys who made those arrangements feel bad, naturally. That’s something you never forget.
GVS: Who was your MVP among the interviewees?
KR: Lamar Haynes, who played on the SMU team with Payne and was a lifelong friend, and Jon Brendle, a PGA Tour rules official who lived next door to Payne. Ironically, they don’t appear that much in the book. Jon does a little, because he picked up Aaron and Chelsea, Payne’s kids, at school on that last day. He’s driving them home. He can’t tell them what’s happened, because the plane hasn’t gone down yet. The plane has been in the air for four hours, with no response, so Jon pretty much knows. Aaron is 10, and he wants to call his dad. Brendle initially doesn’t want him to but then decides, What’s the harm? and gives Aaron his cell phone. Aaron calls and gets his father’s voicemail. Jon said Aaron is in the back seat, begging his dad to wake up because he’s been told, Your dad is asleep on this plane; that’s all we know. That was a tough story to hear. Jon picked me up at 11 a.m. and dropped me off seven hours later. We went to Isleworth, Bay Hill, we saw Payne’s houses and Jon had me talk to people. It was a long day.
GVS: It sounds like a pretty gut-wrenching tour.
KR: It was. I didn’t know this, but part of Payne’s remains are buried in a cemetery near Bay Hill, right off a busy road. There’s a modest marker – it’s flat and made of metal. It’s a small cemetery. You can literally drive your car right up to the edge of Payne’s plot. Not many people know about it. There’s always an American flag there, sometimes a few golf balls. That’s where our day ended.
GVS: We forgot to talk about Payne’s knickers and his NFL team outfits. Those were a story in the newspaper every day in every city he played. He got daily questions about which team he’d wear the next day, but he coyly never answered. He was a peacock, in a good way.
KR: Payne was well-paid by the NFL. He was a self-marketer and a brand before anyone else on Tour realized the importance of that. His dad was a salesman who wore loud sports coats and had the same flair. When Payne was young, they were playing golf at Hickory Hills one day. It was already apparent that Payne had remarkable talent and his dad told him, “You always need to be remembered.” He is.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle