You can wear pastel plus fours and argyle socks, you can don a fire-engine red cap and stick 13 needles in your ears, you can win $288,795 in a year and pose for racy pictures in a national magazine, but until you've led the Masters or the U.S. Open, you're nobody in golf.
Until this week, Payne Stewart was beating a drum at the head of a one-man parade. He could dress as outlandishly as he liked on the course or wear only a towel for photographers off it and he was still the guy who, when he came to the press room after winning a tournament, was told by security guards, "Sorry, buddy, caddies aren't allowed in here."
Stewart's daddy was a travelin' drummer all his life and proud of it. He told his boy always to wear the loud clothes and the polka-dot tie because then maybe they'd remember you the next time you came through town. Don't just sell the product; sell yourself, too.
That, however, takes you only so far in golf, where they just ask "how many," not how good you looked doing it or how funny you were talking about it.
Until this week, Payne Stewart did everything he could to attract attention except what mattered most -- play well in the big events. He'd never made a cut at the Masters or U.S. Open and neither the PGA nor British Open record books mention his name.
His career progression on the money list told a clear story: 157th, 38th, 25th and, in 1984, 11th. This was a comer coming into his prime. He was good and might soon be one of the best. But the spotlight kept avoiding him. He was even from the wrong state -- Missouri -- where he'd always be second fiddle to Kansas City's Tom Watson.
Nobody ever won as much cash without winning a tournament as Stewart did last year. Maximum production with minimum recognition, again.
Now, at 28, Stewart is starting to make an impression. As coleader of the Masters after two rounds and still a strong contender (seventh, four shots off the lead) entering the final round, he's getting the microscope treatment and he's eating it up.
Want to know why Stewart keeps tugging at his ears when he's in a tight spot? He's got these 13 acupuncture needles in the lobes that hit special nerves. Yank the right side to fight stress, pull on the left to concentrate better. Sure, Payne, and if you jiggle both at once and cock your head at the proper angle, maybe you can pull in ESPN.
Stewart has waited a long time to tell the world his tales. About how he played the Asian tour for two years after he flunked the PGA Tour qualifying school and ended up winning the Tweed Head Classic in Australia. About how he won the Indonesian Open and first prize was a wife. Yes, Tracey Ferguson Stewart is Australian and, as the song says, they met One Night in Bangkok.
How long has Stewart been prepping his act?
Well, he and his father teamed up to win their first tournament when he was 4 1/2 years old. Just as the son of a banker knows that a pin-stripe suit awaits him unless he actively avoids it, Stewart always knew he'd earn his living with golf clubs.
Stewart's father, Bill, hit the road on Monday morning, came home Thursday night, then went to the golf course Friday morning. Bill Stewart won the Missouri Amateur twice and the Missouri Seniors once. Between selling and playing, he knew which was more fun and he wanted golf for his boy.
"My father was a big success, at least to my thinking," Stewart said this week. "To play as little as he did and be as good as he was is very hard."
When Stewart was 12, his father brought home the 19-year-old college hotshot who'd just licked him in the state amateur -- Tom Watson. "All I remember is that Watson threw a helluva Frisbee," Stewart said. "I figured Stanford (Watson's school) must be near a beach."
Stewart's father saw a little too much beach in his son. "We were close, but I was stubborn, too, like him. I probably didn't listen to him as much as I should have," said the son. Last month, Bill Stewart died of cancer. "It was a relief," said Payne Stewart. "The whole family had accepted it long ago and so had my father. I think he finally got tired of suffering and just closed his eyes and decided not to wake up."
Not long before his death, son told father that "someday I'll win the Masters." The long, open Augusta National track suited his game and he figured that was where he'd finally make his breakthrough and put the Stewart name on the golf map. His father said, "Well, why not just win it this year?"
That's the plan. "My father was so much more intense a competitor than I am," Stewart said Thursday. "Maybe now that he's gone I'll inherit that from his spirit."
In sports, a great deal of how you are seen depends on whether you win. Whether you're considered an original or a pushy copy of the real thing can be decided by your score, whether it should be or not.
For instance, if you wear black from head to toe, as Gary Player has so often for decades, then it's a trademark, a symbol of your individuality -- that is, if you win three Masters. If, like Stewart and several others, you do some beefcake promotion to help loosen up the Tour's clone image, it's all good fun. As long as you keep making the top 10.
Recently, Stewart chose to wear slacks instead of plus fours. "People had to look at my bag to figure out who I was," he said disappointedly. "I missed the nice comments about my clothes."
Next day, plus fours.
On Sunday at the Masters, Payne Stewart will face one of those crucial days in a career. Will we think of him as an original or merely an imitator?