Tiger Woods came to Champions Golf Club this morning to play in a pro-am event before the start of the Tour Championship on Thursday. As he got out of his car and walked toward the players' locker room, what he noticed most of all was the silence.
"It was almost eerie," said the top-ranked player in the world. "No one was asking for autographs or clamoring for pictures. It was just real quiet. Even on the range, where normally you have a lot of amateurs asking the pros for autographs or posing for pictures and wanting to talk to us, nobody was talking. It was just silent out there. No one knows how to react."
They will play a $5 million golf tournament here this week, the last PGA Tour event of the season, with $900,000 going to the winner. But no one was talking about tricky pin placements, diabolical course setups or the state of their games on this warm, October afternoon that still felt as if there was a chill in the air.
This was the day after their friend and longtime colleague, Payne Stewart, died when a Learjet he had chartered veered hundreds of miles off course before crashing in a swampy field in South Dakota. By noon today, 29 of the game's top 30 money-winners had registered. Only Stewart, ranked eighth in the world, was missing. Some players forced themselves to practice or play in the pro-am, though most conceded their minds were elsewhere.
"I didn't sleep at all," said Woods, who lives in the same Orlando community the Stewart family calls home. "I tossed and turned all night, and I don't see how you couldn't. Anyone who knew Payne . . . it's a huge blow to all of us because he was a part of our lives. To have him gone, it's really difficult to refer to him right now in the past tense. That's the hardest thing for me right now when I talk about it. . . . I just saw him the other day. It's hard to believe he's not going to be here."
Stewart was due to arrive in Houston on Monday night on the private jet. He was traveling with two of his agents and a golf-course designer, who also perished, along with the pilot and copilot. He had planned a stopover in Dallas for lunch at a Mexican restaurant and a visit to a potential site in Frisco, Tex., where he was planning to design a golf course that would be used by his alma mater, Southern Methodist University.
Today, many of his peers struggled for words to describe their feelings. Some, such as Woods and David Duval, came to the press tent for painfully touching news conferences. Others declined to comment. Those who did all were in agreement that playing golf was about the last thing on their minds.
"Golf, if you talk to anyone, this is just a non-event to everybody," Jeff Sluman said, standing on the practice putting green. "Is it all right if they wipe [the tournament] out? Absolutely. . . . It's hard to describe the feeling. Golf just isn't very important right now."
Added Woods: "I got in last night and I got the pro-am pairing sheet. There's my name at 9 o'clock and there's an open space right behind me. [Stewart was due to play at 9:09 a.m.] That was a rude awakening to me. You almost think that it's a bad dream or a nightmare, but unfortunately, it came true."
The tournament will be played. The PGA Tour announced this afternoon that the event will consist of 27 holes Thursday, 27 on Saturday and the final 18 holes on Sunday. On Friday, there will be a memorial service in Orlando, Stewart's adopted home town, and the tour likely will make charter flights available to players and tour officials here who would like to attend, returning Friday afternoon. There also will be a memorial service here Thursday at 7:45 a.m. on the first tee.
Similarly, there will be a charter to Orlando from a full-field tour event, the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in Madison, Miss., for players who did not make this elite field. That tournament also will not be contested Friday, with 18 holes scheduled Thursday, Saturday and Sunday for a 54-hole event. A memorial service is scheduled there Thursday night.
Today, in the players' parking lot, a green Century Buick courtesy car was parked in Stewart's reserved space with his name still on a barrier. By late this afternoon, more than a dozen flowered wreaths had been placed on the windshield or the fence in front of it, with several sympathy cards and notes attached.
Duval was just finishing lunch in the Champions clubhouse Monday when an equipment manufacturer's representative told him his wife just called to say that a private plane was in trouble and there were unconfirmed reports that a prominent golfer was aboard.
"I went from there to register and one lady at the registration table said it was Payne," Duval said. "When I got up and went inside to the locker room, they said on TV somebody was leaving Orlando headed to Dallas and they were on a Lear 35. I was like, 'That's not Payne,' because I'm in that same program he was with, Flex Jet, and they don't fly 35s. They fly [Lear] 31s and 6s, so it was a brief relief, that it just must have been inaccurate. Then we found out it was a charter plane; it wasn't through the company.
"I don't think today was any easier than yesterday. But yesterday was the worst part about it all. Today is just trying to get a grasp of it being real."
Many of the players in the field this week, such as Woods and Duval, have similar flying arrangements, essentially purchasing time shares in private jets. Some, such as Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson, are licensed pilots and fly their own planes. They do it to avoid airport and luggage hassles, to come and go on their own time schedules, and, in the case of higher-profile players such as Woods and Stewart, to travel without being hounded in terminals or in their seats for autographs or swing tips.
Both Duval and Woods insisted today the accident would have no effect on their traveling in private jets.
"I certainly think it could have happened to anyone," Duval said. "It's proven that flying is still the safest way to go, and we have no choice. If you're going to be a professional golfer, you're going to fly. It's just part of what you do."
"There are thousands of those things up there every day," said Sluman, who usually takes commercial flights. "I know nothing about aviation, but this just seemed like an unbelievably bizarre incident. It's extremely safe up there. You've got two pilots. The problem is that everyone wants answers, but there probably aren't any."
Still, many players were searching for different answers, coping with their emotions and trying to remember so many good times they had with Stewart on and off the golf course.
"It's hard to come up with an emotion that fits," said Fred Funk. "It's such a shock. We had become pretty good friends in the fitness trailer. I felt like I had gotten to know him better the last few years. . . . I tried to practice yesterday and I couldn't concentrate any more. It seemed like every stray thought would go to Payne, and why did this happen.
"We were watching the movie 'Jerry Maguire' when we were working out one day. I looked over toward Payne and said, 'You complete me' [a key line in the film]. He started laughing so hard he fell off the machine. It was nice to finally get him on something, because he usually is the one who gets you."
Sluman said he will always remember the final time he saw Stewart. He was on the practice range last week at the Disney event in Orlando. "When I looked over my shoulder while I'm working on my game," Sluman said, "he's got 10-year-old Aaron with him and they're getting ready to play in the father-son tournament. They're laughing, having a grand time.
"It's the last time I saw him. It's a memory that I'll never forget, Payne riding off with his son to go play golf. . . . I don't think there's any words to describe how badly everyone feels, the helplessness. There just are no answers."