Exactly one month ago, Payne Stewart was on top of the world. Or, rather, he was on top of the U.S. team clubhouse at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., spraying champagne on his Ryder Cup teammates and the cheering crowd below him. With that crooked the-devil-made-me-do-it smirk of his, Payne found an upper-story window from which to squirt down on everybody else.
Tom Lehman ripped off his shirt, not an altogether pretty sight, and heaved it to the fans. Other players tossed their golf gloves or balls. Stewart took off his famous tam-o'-shanter, almost as much a trademark as his knickers, and sailed it into the throng.
An hour later, Stewart came to a news conference along with 11 teammates and captain Ben Crenshaw. Everybody was elated, proud, exhausted and loving one another. Usually, on such occasions, it's hard to tell who is enjoying himself the most. This time it wasn't. Apparently, Stewart hadn't sprayed all of the champagne on others. He had saved some for himself. You've never seen anyone so gloriously buzzed.
As others talked, he gazed straight ahead, an enormous grin fixed on his face. When others made a point, he'd give a "right on, brother" gesture with his fist or nod profoundly with that comic seriousness of the deliciously half-blitzed.
If you'd known Stewart for 20 years, this thought crossed your mind: "Dear God, don't let Payne talk." Because, for much of his career, Stewart was famous for saying pretty much anything that came into his head, about half of which probably shouldn't have come out of his mouth.
But, in due time, Stewart's turn came to talk. And he began a rambling soliloquy. Now, in the wake of his death at 42 in a private plane crash yesterday, his storytelling that evening serves as a wonderful eulogy.
At every instant, you expected Stewart to lapse into one of the familiar character quirks that betrayed him over the years--that lost him friends, caused resentment in his early years, limited his ability, got him into controversies. Would he be self-serving? Would he step on somebody's toes or wander into political incorrectness, as he did just last week when he used a mock Chinese accent--for which he later apologized--during a television interview? Would he, perhaps, show that defiant, competitive, self-promoting, son-of-a-travelin'-drummer side of his personality that was so strong, and so weak, too?
But he didn't. With the years, Stewart grew up, grew up beautifully, unlike some sports successes who calcify or begin to seem like caricatures. Stewart always kept learning more about the game and himself, especially his flaws and limits. That's why he won his second U.S. Open championship this year.
Nobody, absolutely nobody, had more chances to win U.S. Opens, only to see them snatched away by others or, more often, squandered by his own hand. Yet, in what is now tragically the last chapter, Stewart finished his last round by sinking the longest winning putt ever--15 feet on the last roll--to win that biggest of all American golf prizes.
Where were we? It wouldn't be right to tell a Payne Stewart story without getting sidetracked. He never could. Stewart would start somewhere, then his accent would get more Southern and he'd take a detour; finally, he'd almost slap himself in the face to get back on track. But he'd never messed up the punch line. Maybe the verbal wandering was a way of building tension, like the pause at the top of a textbook swing. Payne had perfect timing, in that fluid swing or telling a tall tale that ended in laughter.
After the Ryder Cup, however, Stewart didn't want a gag line. He wanted to make a subtle, mature, ethical point. And, despite the champagne rounding off his consonants, he somehow did it exactly right.
Stewart told how his opponent, six-time European money leader Colin Montgomerie, had been heckled by American fans all day. Now, his match with Stewart had come down to one tricky little putt. If the Scot made it, he won. If he didn't, Stewart would have a satisfying tie against Europe's top star--a perfect feather in his own cap and a gratifying kick-in-the-pants conclusion to the greatest comeback in team golf history. America would win by 15-13, not that slimmest possible margin of 14 1/2-13 1/2.
"Pick it up," Stewart told Monty, conceding the putt and ensuring his own defeat.
"He doesn't deserve what he went through out there [from hecklers]. It's not fair. . . . That's not what this sport is about," said Stewart. "As he was getting ready to putt, I said to my caddie, 'He doesn't deserve to have to make this putt. I'm not going to make him do it. I'm not going to put him through that [if he misses].' "
So, in high-level competitive golf, Stewart will now be remembered for two ideal moments that came within months of his death. First, he sank one of the greatest clutch putts ever to win a U.S. Open, then he conceded a putt to defeat himself in the classiest act of a feud-filled Ryder Cup.
For years, Stewart was accused of having more style than substance. Part of the problem was that he had soooo much style. However, by the end, Stewart's style and his substance--like his match with Montgomerie--ended in an excellent tie.
Before the last round of this year's Open, the always emotional Stewart stumbled upon a TV segment about him and his father, the traveling salesman and small-town golf flash who once made it to the '55 U.S. Open.
"I bawled my eyes out," Stewart said. "Then I thought about him for a while. That probably gave me strength."
Those words that he applied to his father a few months ago are now, perhaps, the final way we think of him.