As the 105th U.S. Open begins here Thursday morning, much of the pre-tournament talk has been about a golfer who will not be here. Memories of the late Payne Stewart hang over this event like a soft cloud, evoking smiles and occasional tears from his friends in professional golf.
On Tuesday night, a kilted bagpiper walked up the first fairway at Pinehurst No. 2 as a prelude to a short ceremony to honor Stewart, who won the U.S. Open the last time it was played on this course. There is a bronze statue of Stewart behind the 18th green, flashing the same leg-up, fist-punching pose he struck after sinking a 15-foot putt on the 72nd hole to beat Phil Mickelson by a shot in 1999.
Stewart was killed at age 42 on Oct. 25, 1999, when the Learjet 35 carrying him and five others crashed in a South Dakota field after running out of fuel. Apparently the plane lost pressure for still undetermined reasons and everyone on board was believed to have lost consciousness as it meandered toward its final plunge to earth. Stewart was survived by his wife Tracey, and son Aaron, now 15, and daughter Chelsea, 19.
Tracey Stewart is not here this week, mostly because Aaron is playing in a junior golf event back home in Florida this week, but her husband has become a huge part of this tournament. For most of the last three weeks, many players interviewed at the Memorial in Ohio and at the Booz Allen Classic at Congressional were asked to talk about their favorite memories of Stewart, and there was more of the same here Tuesday and Wednesday.
They mostly talked about his impish, mischievous side, the practical jokes -- shaving cream, toothpaste or bananas in their shoes. They talked about the purity of his swing and his considerable skills in every aspect of the game. They talked about his signature cap, plus fours and argyle socks.
They did not talk about another side of Stewart mostly exhibited earlier in his career: his more than occasional, whining rants about USGA course set-ups in the Open, not shaking hands with Tom Kite after losing to him in the 1989 Tour Championship, once firing his longtime swing coach, Harvie Ward, without even telling him.
His friends say in the last years of his life, Stewart truly tried to change his sometimes churlish act. He had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder at the age of 38 and was trying to cope as best he could. Through former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser, he found religion and became active in his local church, and he was a doting husband and father to his wife and children.
At Tuesday's ceremony, Mickelson recalled how Stewart had offered him words of consolation and encouragement on the day Stewart beat him for the Open title, telling Mickelson that the birth of the Mickelsons' first child -- which occurred the next day -- was far more important than winning a golf tournament, even if it was the U.S. Open.
"When I arrived here and I saw the statue of Payne and when I drove by the house that I stayed at, a lot of memories came back," Mickelson said earlier this week. "Having my [three] kids come into town this week is going to be something that I'm going to enjoy because we tell the story to our daughter Amanda about her birth and how it all took place, and it will be fun for her to be at the place we've been talking about all these years."
Ernie Els recalled recently that Stewart wasn't playing particularly well coming into that 1999 Open, missing the cut only the week before.
"But he just gutted it out" at Pinehurst, Els said. "He wanted it more than anybody. You could see that. I remember the putt he made on 16 [a tough 25-footer], and then he birdied 17 and then obviously his putt on 18. You could just see his emotion, how much he wanted to win that tournament. Payne will always be missed out here. He was a true character. You knew where he was coming from and he had a little bit of an air of cockiness to him. But it was kind of nice. He always had something to say about something. I liked him."
John Brendle, a longtime PGA Tour rules official and former teaching professional, got to know Stewart early in his playing career. Brendle, upon hearing that Stewart's plane was in trouble, got in his car and dashed to the school Aaron and Chelsea attended and brought them home. Brendle helped Tracey throughout that agonizing day, and also played a significant role in planning the funeral. Brendle also chose not to be here this week, saying he would have found it too painful and that he still grieves for his friend every day.
"It's hard for me because Aaron doesn't remember that much, being 9 years old" at the time, Brendle said. "He idolizes some of these other players, not really knowing how good his dad was. It's hard for me to think how much he really missed being the wrong age. I wish he would have been 15 years old where he would have had a nice life with his father. I always talk to him about his dad. We're the only people that kind of keep this stuff going. Every time I bring up something we did together, I try to re-encourage that. I try to tell him how good I think his dad was. I think he was one of the more exceptional players."
Some tears flowed Tuesday evening as the bagpiper strode down the first hole at Pinehurst No. 2.
"For all the people he has touched and had the opportunity to get to know him, Payne Stewart lives in those people," Mickelson said at the ceremony. "He lives in my heart. He will continue to push me to strive to become a better professional, a better father and a better husband. I miss him."