News & Opinion

Stewart falls short as best U.S. player of his generation

Major titles? Yes. Charisma? Certainly. Yet, Payne Stewart was stolen from us with too many gaps in his record, Hawk & Rude say

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Longtime golf journalists John Hawkins and Jeff Rude are co-hosts of a weekly podcast, Hawk & Rude, in which they discuss and debate the hottest issues in golf. They also share their takes in this weekly installment.

The late Payne Stewart won more major titles (three) than any U.S. golfer born in the 1950s or 1960s. Was he the best American player of his generation?

Hawk’s take: You’re kidding, right? If said generation includes Tom Watson, born in September 1949, I’m not sure Stewart would even make the top five. He was a terrific big-game player, and as much as major championships define legacies, Stewart also had several lengthy stretches when he completely vanished from the game’s top tier. In an era when there was no dominant player around to pile up a double-digit major total – a stretch of European dominance and increased international presence – Stewart barely reached double digits in PGA Tour victories.

He wound up with 11, which makes his career a lot more like that of his buddy Lee Janzen (two majors, a Players, eight times overall) than Davis Love III (one, two, 21). Mark O’Meara finished with 16 Tour victories, including a Masters and a British Open. Fred Couples had 15, including a Masters and two Players. And let’s not forget Curtis Strange, who won back-to-back U.S. Opens, three money titles and 17 times overall.

Few American golfers in any generation were more recognizable or popular than Stewart, but pro golf ain’t no popularity contest. He was productive at the right times but largely invisible for about two-thirds of his 18 years in the big leagues. His body of work simply doesn’t rank with the best of the period.

Rude’s take: Only if you put disproportionate value on major championships. Or discount PGA Tour victories. Or assign Tom Watson (39 Tour titles, including eight majors), born 7½ years earlier, to a different generation.

Owner of 11 PGA Tour victories, Stewart was a marvelous player and one of the best U.S. Open competitors ever, as well as a showman who never met a room he couldn’t pump life into. Nobody led the U.S. Open more times after 18, 36 or 54 than Stewart, who did so 11 times.

But ...

Davis Love III (21-1) won 10 more Tour titles and had 50 more top 10s (I know, I sound like a Tour flack with the latter). Love ended 11 seasons in the world top 10 and bagged a couple of Players.

Ben Crenshaw (19-2) had eight more Tour wins. Curtis Strange (17-2) won three more money titles (3-0). Fred Couples (15-1) was No. 1 in the world 16 more weeks (16-0).

As for Stewart, he failed to win a tournament in 10 full seasons. Six times over a 16-year span he fell out of the top 30. As Hall of Fame worthy as he was, he wasn’t consistently elite, disappearing at times. That’s why the answer is no.