Out in the parking lot, the flowered wreaths continued to pile up around the empty space reserved for Payne Stewart's courtesy car. All around the Champions Golf Club today, 29 players attempted to collect their thoughts, cope with their still shaky emotions and ready themselves to begin playing Thursday morning in a golf tournament most agree means very little to them.
In a news conference here this afternoon, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said there never was any consideration of postponing or canceling this week's $5 million Tour Championship in the wake of the plane crash Monday that killed U.S. Open champion Stewart, three of his traveling companions and two pilots.
"In a short period of time, we looked at every conceivable alternative," Finchem said today, a day after visiting Stewart's family in Orlando. "We concluded that given all the various factors, perhaps even the factor of what Payne Stewart would have liked to see happen, we determined this course of action. I suspect it could be second-guessed, but it doesn't really matter at this point. It's our course of action, and frankly, we are very comfortable with it."
Virtually the entire field is expected to leave here either Thursday night or early Friday to make the two-hour flight to Orlando to attend an 11 a.m. memorial service for Stewart, then return later in the afternoon. Before the start of play here Thursday morning, there will be another service at the first tee, with Tom Lehman offering a prayer and a solitary bagpiper walking down the first fairway. Play has been canceled Friday here and in Madison, Miss., the site of a full-field tour event.
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Ben Crenshaw arrived here today to meet with members of his '99 team. He had planned all along to attend the event that marks the first reunion of virtually his entire team since its stirring comeback victory over Europe last month.
Instead, Stewart's Ryder teammates will be among more than 100 fellow tour players Friday grieving at the public service. The tournament-sponsoring Southern Company has provided at least two jets, and other players and corporations also have made planes available.
"The best thing I could do is come down here and talk with these fellas," Crenshaw said after driving three hours from his home in Austin. "I've been thinking about it every minute. When it happens this close to you, you don't know what to do. This guy was so much a big part of our lives, and I can't believe we're not going to see him any more.
"We may play an individual game, but we're all a family. I wanted to be with these guys. I wanted to talk to them. The best we can do is talk to each other and be with each other."
Crenshaw also called Davis Love III at his home in Sea Island, Ga., Tuesday night and persuaded him not to pull out of the tournament.
"I was sitting at home thinking that it doesn't seem right to be playing golf," Love said this afternoon. "When Ben told me he was coming down to walk with guys on the team, I said 'I'll see you in the morning' because that really was the right thing to do.
"I questioned whether we should play. . . . I was pushing Tim not to play, but Tim was very smart. We'll show support for the family better out here than we would fractioned off at home. . . . It's good for guys to get back out to work. I was dreading coming back on the tour. . . . But it's good for us to come out and run into guys, hug guys who want to be hugged and cry with guys who want to cry. Go ahead and get your grieving process started."
For Love, it probably has been harder than most. In 1988, his father, Davis Love Jr., was killed in a plane crash near the Jacksonville airport. Love said today his main concern was for Stewart's family, especially his two children, 13-year-old Chelsea and 10-year-old Aaron, as well as his wife, Tracey.
"Comparisons are not fair," Love said. "Payne Stewart was a leader on our tour and a great example as a father. That's the biggest thing I'll watch out for over the next few years is how we as a tour and us as Payne Stewart's friends can help those children remember their father well and get through what is a very tough time. Everyone says children are resilient. I just hope we can help them both understand the memories of their father will be fun, and he will definitely live on, definitely in golf, and as a great father."
Finchem said today the tour has not decided how it will honor that memory, but that certainly will be priority.
"What we've been faced with the last few days is trying to do what we can do as an organization in the short term to assist in an appropriate recognition of Payne's passing," he said. "Then we'll reflect on the longer term and what steps might be necessary to make sure that we perpetuate his memory and what he stood for and how important he was to the game."
Hal Sutton, another of Stewart's Ryder Cup teammates, said today there even had been talk among the players of honoring their friend by wearing his trademark plus-fours and cap on Sunday. Finchem, wearing a black ribbon on his blazer lapel like many others on the grounds, said that was not likely to happen, but indicated other plans are being discussed.
"Payne wasn't a family member of mine," Sutton said, "but I almost feel like I lost a family member. He and I have been competing against one another for the better part of 22 years, whether it was amateur golf or professional golf. Because our names were so close together in the alphabet, we were always lockered beside one another and parking beside one another. Every time I look at his locker this week, it just causes distress inside.
"We're reminded a lot of times by how short life really is, and we're just passing through this life. When a friend like Payne gets taken in a tragedy, you're just reminded how short it really is. So all the people you haven't told you love lately, you better tell them. And you better live your days like you mean it."