News & Opinion

20 years later, one of golf’s brightest lights still shines

Colorful Payne Stewart, a 3-time major champion and radiant ambassador of the game, died in a plane accident Oct. 25, 1999

Twenty years now, where’d they go?
Twenty years, I don’t know
I sit and I wonder sometimes,
Where they’ve gone.
– Bob Seger, “Like a Rock”

A journalist pal who once was asked to write a look-back story on the famous sun-splashed “Duel in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus that was the 1977 British Open at Turnberry stopped Watson to request a few minutes to help with a story marking the occasion’s 20th anniversary. “You know,” Watson told the scribe somewhat disinterestedly, “every year is an anniversary.”

True. Somehow, 10 and 20 and 50 seem rounder in number than 8 and 18 and 27. Some anniversaries seem, well, different. A time to truly pause. Collect. Remember. Measure. The memories that accompany some days of our past are so fresh and vivid, regardless of what the slow-crawling sands of time want to tell us. Here we are, 20 years to the day that all the music suddenly halted on the PGA Tour. On Oct. 25, 1999, the last living moments of Payne Stewart, three friends and two pilots were spent onboard a private LearJet 35 that took off from Orlando, Fla., on a sleepy Monday bound for Texas but never got there. Instead, the jet, carrying six people rendered unconscious from a lack of oxygen, ran out of fuel and crashed nearly four hours later across the map in a grassy field in South Dakota. That quickly, our U.S. Open champion was gone.

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A statue at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort’s No. 2 Course honors the late Payne Stewart for his iconic reaction upon winning the 1999 U.S. Open.

Stewart was a fashionable and entertaining golf brand, one of the game’s bright personalities, once again a freshly minted major champion. He was a loving husband and doting father to two young children, a man greatly deepened by his ever-blossoming spirituality. Stewart, who’d won the AT&T at Pebble Beach earlier in the 1999 season – his first victory on the PGA Tour in nearly four years – as a prelude to winning the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, was 42 years old. Also lost that day were two members of the group that represented him, Robert Fraley, 46, and Van Arden, 45, of Leader Enterprises; Bruce Borland, 40, a senior design associate with Jack Nicklaus Design; pilot Michael Kling, 43; and co-pilot Stephanie Bellegarrigue, 27.

I had been the golf beat writer at the Orlando Sentinel, starting in 1995, and later a deputy editor and writer at Golfweek magazine across town for two decades. Stewart had been one of my marquee “locals.” We had a handful. The 1990s represented a big time for golf in Orlando. Stewart joined Nick Price, Ian Baker-Finch, Ernie Els, Lee Janzen, Corey Pavin, Nick Faldo and Mark O’Meara in bringing home major-championship trophies to The City Beautiful. As an added bonus, a rookie by way of California making his professional debut in Milwaukee in August 1996 did so attached to a newly listed hometown. The announcement on the first tee that historic day at the Greater Milwaukee Open came through thusly: “From Orlando, Fla., Tiger Woods.”

Back to Stewart. With so many star players living in town, surely some had to be easier to deal with than others. The writer who’d held down the golf beat before my taking over in 1995 was generous in his scouting report, and put forth one player who might be my biggest challenge to interview/cover: Payne Stewart. Maybe it simply was the divine timing of my arrival to the beat as Stewart was embracing a kinder, gentler and less pugnacious persona. Frankly, Stewart could not have been more outgoing and generous. He was a quote machine, offering thoughtful words. He enjoyed talking about his craft.

Early on, there were plenty of veteran players on the PGA Tour who’d failed to view the bigger picture when Woods arrived. The Tour clearly was on a different trajectory with this kid. There was outward jealousy and many eyerolls over golf’s newest wunderkind. A common stance: Here’s a rookie who really hasn’t done anything as a pro, and he’s garnering multimillion-dollar deals and all the attention, basically removing all air from the room. . . . You may want to talk about Woods, but me, I don’t.

Truth was, golf fans and readers could not get enough about Woods (some things never do change). From Tiger’s professional debut in Milwaukee in late August until the end of 1996 alone – remember, this is before he’d win the Masters in April 1997 and really ascend into a sports rocket ship – the Orlando Sentinel alone did more than 100 stories on or mentioning Woods in four-plus months. When he committed to play Disney, the tournament director charged out of his office and jumped into a nearby pool. We were chasing Woods down on off-days to see what he was doing that afternoon.

By the time that Disney event rolled around in October 1996, two weeks after Woods’ first Tour victory in Las Vegas, many veteran players had reached their breaking point in discussing all things Tiger. After a handful of rebukes and short answers from players, I can remember running into Stewart just outside the cramped locker room that the players shared at Disney’s Magnolia and Palm courses. Approaching top players and asking about Woods at the time was akin to a basketball player trying to drive the lane against Orlando Magic center Shaquille O’Neal. Prepare for rejection.

I asked Stewart if he had a few minutes to chat. What about? he asked, snapping that ever-present wad of gum. Well, actually, um, about, well, Tiger. He grinned. Stewart joked that he had all day to talk. “That guy,” he said, “is going to be good for my business.”

He would be. So, too, was Stewart good for golf. He grew up and matured in front of us. He set himself apart from a certain PGA Tour high-waisted Sansabelt and white-shirt “sameness” by wearing plus-fours and the Hogan cap. He was recognizable when he stood 200 yards down the fairway. Truthfully, it didn’t take a fashion statement for Stewart to separate himself from the rest.

He had such a contagious passion and excitement for the big events. On the day when he won that 1999 U.S. Open title at Pinehurst, making an incredible 15-footer for par at the final hole to hold off Phil Mickelson, Stewart entered the media hall, set the giant trophy down on a table next to his seat, and said aloud the first words that entered his mind: “There, that ought to take care of [making] the Ryder Cup.” Having missed the previous two Ryder Cups, he dearly wanted to qualify for the 1999 team, and had.

Four months later, he stretched from a makeshift tent on the 10th tee of the Magnolia Course at Disney in Orlando two days before he’d play his last PGA Tour event and talked for 20 minutes about the improvements he’d made and how it was time to set new goals as his monster 1999 season wound to a close. He'd had a great year: Two victories, including a third major title, and a comeback U.S. Ryder Cup victory at Brookline that he’d celebrated harder than anyone.

Stewart shot a pair of 71s and missed the cut at Disney that Friday (he missed only three others in 1999), which turned out to be a blessing. On Saturday morning, Stewart was at nearby Dr. Phillips High School to watch his 10-year-old son, Aaron, play in a Pop Warner football game. My oldest son was on the other team. Stewart wasn’t a star athlete on this morning. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, and a hat emblazoned with SMU (his alma mater), doing the job he’d really grown to love: just being a dad. We chatted during pregame. Aaron had a new position; dad was excited. The Tour Championship in Houston beckoned in a few days. He’d told his wife, Tracey, that he couldn’t wait for the season to be over so that finally he could be home with the family.

By midday Monday, Payne Stewart was gone from this Earth. There was a jet in the air that had strayed wildly from its flight plan, a ghost flight, and officials could not make contact with anyone onboard. Late morning, CNN picked up the story. Word began to filter that a star golfer possibly was onboard. In the Golfweek offices, we received a tip that it was Lee Janzen, a college classmate of mine. I had Janzen’s cell, and rang his number, which delivered a harrowing and anxious feeling, but was relieved when he answered. That relief would last only seconds. Janzen said two words: “It’s Payne.” I still hear the words.

“It was too soon to go,” Janzen, Stewart’s friend and neighbor, would say later that week. All those trophies were nice, but all Stewart really wanted to do was make a difference in people’s lives. Through his charitable efforts, through the way he treated people and represented his beloved game, through the indelible impact he made on his wife and children, he did make a difference.

Twenty years now, where’d they go?