Payne Stewart, who died yesterday at age 42 in a private plane crash that killed everyone aboard, achieved his most memorable moments as a golfer only this year in a way that defined him both as a champion and an unforgettable sportsman.
Stewart won his second U.S. Open with a dramatic 15-foot putt in June, then helped the United States to victory in last month's Ryder Cup. Knowing that the United States had just clinched the team victory in that historic match-play rivalry between Americans and top golfers from abroad, Stewart ensured his own defeat in his individual match with Colin Montgomerie by conceding a putt on the 18th green because Montgomerie had been heckled during their match.
"He had a real reverence for the game," tour pro Peter Jacobsen told the Associated Press. "As a golfer, his record speaks for itself. He was loved by many people."
Stewart's final acts of victory and grace occurred, respectively, on two of the sport's hallowed grounds, in Pinehurst, N.C., and at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
Fellow pros expressed shock and grief over the tragedy that took from their midst one of the game's most colorful players, who wore knickers and tam-o'-shanter caps. Stewart also was regarded as one of the tour's most tenacious players, whose Open championship signified a return to the form that enabled him to win his two other major titles, the 1989 PGA and 1991 U.S. Open. Subsequently, he went eight years with only one victory.
He stood eighth in the latest world rankings.
"It is shocking. It's a tragedy," Tiger Woods said. "I can't even comprehend the scope of it. None of us can right now. There is an enormous void and emptiness I feel right now."
In his 20 years on the tour, Stewart gained a reputation for a classic swing, the often gaudy plus-four outfits he wore to honor the history of the game, a wicked and occasionally inappropriate sense of humor that could both amuse and offend, and a legacy of 11 tournament victories, including his three major championships.
"He was very much a believer in playing for his country," Ben Crenshaw, captain of this year's U.S. Ryder Cup team, said. "The players benefited so much from his confidence. I will always remember that smile . . . and that beautiful, graceful swing."
The circumstances of Stewart's death reminded Crenshaw of another colorful golfer, Tony Lema, who died in a plane crash in 1966. Crenshaw noted that Lema died, like Stewart, "right in the prime of his career."
Stewart made his latest Open title memorable when he won a duel with playing partner Phil Mickelson down the stretch on the final day. When it appeared they would finish 72 holes tied for the lead and be forced to come back Monday for an 18-hole playoff, Stewart made his memorable putt at the final hole to win by a stroke.
When the ball dropped, Stewart clenched both fists, squatted toward the bleachers and let out a primal scream of delight in winning a tournament he had led after three rounds in 1998 at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, only to falter on the last day.
"I've got to give thanks to the Lord for giving me the ability to believe in myself," he said on that memorable day at Pinehurst. "Without that peace I have in my heart, I wouldn't be sitting here."
Before this year, Stewart played on Ryder Cup teams in 1987, 1989, 1991 and 1993. The 1991 team prevailed in a contentious match at Kiawah Island, S.C., and the 1993 team kept the Cup with a victory at the Belfry in England.
Before those '93 matches, Stewart was one of several players who said they did not want to visit the White House to meet a recently elected President Clinton because of his anti-war stance during the Vietnam era. Stewart eventually did make the visit before flying with the team to England. Clinton said yesterday: "I am profoundly sorry for the loss of Payne Stewart, who has had such a remarkable career and impact on his sport and a remarkable resurgence in the last couple of years." The President had been kept informed as the jet carrying Stewart flew uncontrolled above the nation's heartland for hours before crashing in South Dakota.
"It is difficult to express our sense of shock and sadness over the death of Payne Stewart," said Tim Finchem, PGA Tour commissioner. "This is a tremendous loss for the entire golfing community and all of sports. Payne was a great champion, a gentleman and a devoted husband and father. He will always be remembered as a very special competitor, and one who contributed enormously to the positive image of professional golf."
"He had a wonderful personality," said Jerry McGee, a senior tour player. "The plus-fours will kind of be his legacy."
"Payne was the life of the party," said Tom Kite, who expressed regret that Stewart "just missed" the Ryder Cup team of which he was captain in 1997.
This past week, during a rain delay in the event at Disney World, Stewart caused considerable controversy when he answered a question in a mock Chinese accent on the Golf Channel. The interview was played nationwide, and Stewart went on the air to apologize profusely for what he'd done. He said he intended only to make fun of a British golf commentator who was quoted in a London newspaper as saying, "Americans are totally different to us. They might as well be Chinese."
Stewart, who characterized himself as an increasingly religious and devoted family man, insisted after the U.S. Open that, "I'm not going to follow that money train," the way he did after winning in '91 by playing around the world and in a number of made-for-TV events.
Recently, he also made a contribution of $500,000 to a church in Orlando. When he won the Bayhill Classic in Orlando in 1987, he donated the entire check to a local children's hospital in memory of his father and teacher, who died in 1985.
Stewart was scheduled to fly yesterday from Orlando to Dallas, reportedly to look at a potential site for a golf course he had been asked to design. He was scheduled to compete in the Tour Championship, which is scheduled to begin Thursday in Houston.
A tour spokesman said that adjustments in the tournament schedule would be made to accommodate those competing players attending memorial services for Stewart.
Justin Leonard, a Ryder Cup teammate of Stewart's, was informed of his friend's death while in Fort Worth attending a function sponsored by his equipment company. He was overcome by emotion, and even after taking time to compose himself, Leonard had trouble expressing his feelings about Stewart. "He's been a good friend," Leonard said. "He leaves a lasting impression on a lot of people."
A Look at Payne Stewart
Born: Jan. 30, 1957, in Springfield, Mo.
College: Graduated from Southern Methodist in 1979 with a business degree.
Family: Wife Tracey Ferguson, daughter Chelsea, son Aaron.
Turned pro: 1979.
Major victories: 1999 and 1991 U.S. Open, 1989 PGA Championship.
Other PGA Tour victories: 1995 Shell Houston Open, 1990 GTE Byron Nelson Classic, 1990 and 1989 MCI Heritage Classic, 1987 Hertz Bay Hill Classic, 1983 Walt Disney World Classic, 1982 Quad Cities Open.
International victories: 1992 and 1993 Hassan II Trophy (Morocco), 1991 Heineken Dutch Open, 1990 World Cup (individual), 1982 Coolangatta-Tweed Head Classic (Australia), 1981 Indonesian Open and Indian Open (Asia).
Stewart also won the 1982 Magnolia Classic and was second in the 1998 and 1993 U.S. Open.
1999 rankings: 6th on the world list; 10th in scoring (69.9 strokes per round), 1st (tie with Brad Faxon) in putting (1.725 strokes per hold), 5th on money list ($2,077,950 in 19 tournaments).
Represented the U.S. on five Ryder Cup teams: 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993 and 1999.
Won three straight Skins Games, 1991-93.
Finished the 1998 season seventh on the all-time money list with $9,659,058.