Seldom does an athlete's entire career come down to one crisis that he knows in his heart will define the way he is remembered in sport forever. It's even rarer for that athlete to rise to the occasion spectacularly, doing things his sport has never seen, and, essentially, erase all the doubts and digs that have dogged him.
Payne Stewart faced that moment Sunday in the final round of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. In all likelihood, his deeds at the 16th, 17th and 18th holes will be the legacy that is remembered for decades when the man in the knickers is recalled.
At 42, Stewart came here in the twilight of his prime to attend to what he called "unfinished business." In this final round, his primary foes were the three best young American players under 30 -- Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and David Duval. In the last four years, they have won 29 PGA Tour events. Stewart has won only one. You'd think that would matter. Yet it didn't.
Stewart's 25-foot putt to save par at the 16th pulled him into a tie for the lead with Mickelson at even par. Stewart's splendid trademark mid-iron to five feet at the 191-yard 17th hole set up a birdie to take the lead. Finally, at the 18th hole, after driving into the rough, laying up and wedging to 15 feet, Stewart's whole golf life seemed ready for a summation to the jury.
Would he miss the putt, bogey the 72nd hole, squander a third-round lead for the second consecutive year and be remembered as Payne Stewart, the crowd-pleasing showman with the glorious swing who never quite fulfilled his gift? Yes, he might still win a Monday playoff with Mickelson. But how often do players who bogey the 72nd hole win the playoff?
Or would Stewart become the first man in Open history to sink a putt of any significant length on the 18th green to win the tournament?
The verdict on Stewart -- directly into the heart of the cup on the last roll -- is that he now has the imprimatur of twin Open champions, plus a PGA Championship, to answer all questions and rebut all doubts.
Give us your emotions, someone said to Stewart, an emotional man.
"If I did that, I wouldn't be able to speak," he said.
Stewart usually does better with his hugs and his tears. Before this round, he stumbled on a TV show that had a segment on him and his father, Bill, the traveling drummer and small-town golf flash who once made it to the '55 U.S. Open, only to miss the cut. "I bawled my eyes out," Stewart said. "Then I thought about him for a while. That probably gave me strength."
On the 18th green, Stewart did a quick reprise of the last 20 or so I-Just-Won-the-Open exaltations -- sort of a celebration medley. He pointed to the crowd, he pointed to God, he lifted his caddie in the air, he grabbed Mickelson by the face and wished him and his expectant wife, Amy, all the blessings of parenthood. Then he cried while he signed his scorecard.
If you think all this was an act, and for years a lot of people in golf thought almost everything about Stewart was an act, then you don't know the long Open road he's traveled.
This tournament has defined Stewart as completely as one event has ever circumscribed any historic player's career. While it has brought him to the spotlight time and again over the past 15 seasons, giving him a half-dozen priceless opportunities for glory, it has seldom been kind to him.
As a young hotshot in 1985, he cracked the top 10 and got the golf world's attention at Oakland Hills. In 1986, he had a fine chance to win at Shinnecock Hills but, head-to-head with old Ray Floyd's stare, admits he was intimidated and folded to sixth place.
Four times in the '90s, Stewart led at the Open's midway point and, on a fifth occasion, he was second after 36 holes. That is an incredible record. Jack Nicklaus, for example, only held the halfway lead twice in his career.
Once, Stewart folded badly, finishing 76-73. Twice, he finished second, including last year, when he held a five-shot lead with 17 holes to go. In '98, he shot exactly the sort of erratic but not disgraceful 74 that has often left critics saying: "That's Payne. Great talent. And just good enough to lose."
Once, in 1991, Stewart actually won the U.S. Open. Yet, even when he was champion, it was accompanied by ungracious snickers as he "won" a playoff because his 75 wasn't as hideous as Scott Simpson's 77. It was like getting a loving cup for winning an acne contest.
Stewart's response to all this has been absolutely remarkable. Year after year, he has grown and matured with every quasi-failure or semi-success. He's laughed at himself, yet not denied the pain that the Open has caused him. He's been both proud of his Open record and subtly dismayed by it. At various times, he has quelled his youthful cockiness and vanity, learned to accept media criticism and admit that his own play, not luck, beat him. He's kept his spunk, the glint in his eye, while becoming an adult.
Nothing, not even failure, tests top golfers as sternly as a major victory that narrowly escapes. How do they deal with it? Honestly, realistically, self-critically, as Stewart has over the years? Or by spinning the facts to protect their public image, their self-image and their pride?
Mickelson seemed squarely on the right track. Asked if he thought he grew up, he didn't jump at the easy, "Yes." "Time will tell," he said. "It will be interesting to see if I am able to break through when I get in this situation again. And it will be interesting to see how long it takes me to get back in this situation."
In other words, will his pain be so great that he won't want to get back into the fire? And when he returns to it, will old memories make him flinch? Tough questions. But the right ones. Can't answer them until you face them.
Woods, at 23, may not be there yet. Twice, he insisted that a three- to four-foot par putt that he missed at the 17th hole was eight feet long. "It was short, but eight feet is not that short," he said. Delusions never help.
However, a much scarier moment followed for Woods fans. After Greg Norman narrowly lost the '86 Masters, he said publicly he didn't feel too bad because he would eventually win several greens jackets. He has never won one. The locker room and press room have retold that hubris story endlessly.
"I've won three U.S. Juniors and three U.S. Amateurs and it would be nice to win three U.S. Opens. That would be pretty neat to do," said Woods, who said that those two little missed putts wouldn't bother him for long. "I had a pretty good chance this week. . . . It's just a matter of time."
Feel free to cover your face. Talent is more common than accomplishment. Perhaps Payne Stewart, once so full of himself, can tell Tiger Woods how long it takes to complete grand projects, and with how many bitter detours and hard changes for the heart and soul. It's done one brutally hard step at a time, not in great proud leaps. Finally, on a dank misty afternoon in the Carolina pinewoods, Stewart finished the job.