Remembering Payne Stewart
Payne Stewart is one of golf’s best remembered professionals playing in the 1980s and 90s. He was immediately recognizable for his fashion, including wearing driver’s caps and knickerbockers that made him look like he stepped out of the 1920s and onto the course. Stewart is also well known for his 11 PGA Tour wins, including 3 major championships, and for how consistent he was in his play. Tragically, Stewart passed away in 1999 aged only 42 and at the top of his game. His sudden death hit the golf world hard, as one of the most popular players was taken away from his loved ones much too early.
Payne Stewart was born January 30, 1957 in Springfield, Missouri. Stewart was raised by his parents in Springfield where he learned the game of golf from his father Bill. His father worked as a traveling furniture salesmen at the time, but had shown himself to be an accomplished golfer by earning a spot into the 1955 U.S. Open. Bill spent many afternoons walking local courses with his son and the hard work paid off when Stewart earned a golf scholarship to Southern Methodist University, graduating in 1979. Stewart would fail at PGA Qualifying School that year so decided to instead compete on the Asian Tour while honing his game and adjusting to life as a professional golfer. Stewart would enjoy success in Asia, winning a few times before returning to America to pass Qualifying School in 1981. Stewart would start his PGA Tour career brightly, earning a win in his rookie season at the 1982 Quad City Open and another at the 1983 Walt Disney World Golf Classic.
Rise to Prominence
Following his wins in 1982 and 1983, Stewart continued to play consistently over the next few years. He began turning heads in part because of his ultra-graceful swing and in part for his “bold” fashion choices. When he won that first PGA Tour tournament in 1982, he did so wearing knickers and colorful socks along with a driver’s or “newsie” cap. After the win, the look was cemented and Stewart was rarely seen on the course without his “uniform”.
Stewart began to be seen as a golfer whose number of wins didn’t truly match his abilities. His career included years when Stewart failed to win but came agonizingly close on numerous occasions, including finishing 1 stroke off 1985 Open Championship winner Sandy Lyle. Furthermore, in 1986 Stewart finished 6th at the 1986 U.S. Open after briefly holding the lead on the back-9 and finished in the top-10 at 16 events, more than any other player despite not winning a single event. He would win again in 1987 at the Hertz Bay Hill Classic and many in the golf world wondered if he would fully achieve his potential by winning a major.
It took a few more years, but in 1989 Stewart did just that by winning the PGA Championship. He did so in dramatic fashion as he overcame a 6 stroke deficit to defeat Mike Reid at Kemper Lakes Golf Club. Stewart would birdie 4 of the course’s final 5 holes while Reid fell away. The win represented Stewart’s 11th top-10 finish in a major, showing again just how consistent Stewart was. He would finish 2nd on the money list in 1989, and in 1990 enjoyed another great season that included another 2 PGA Tour win as well as his second runners-up finish at the Open Championship. Stewart would see his official ranking rise to 3 in the world as he was widely recognized as one of the best golfers on the planet.
In 1991, Stewart won his second major championship at the U.S. Open. Again, it was done it dramatic fashion. Stewart and Scott Simpson finished tied after 72 holes, forcing an 18-hole playoff according to U.S. Open rules. Stewart found himself trailing Simpson by 2 strokes heading into the 16th hole. However, Stewart would sink a 20 foot putt for birdie while Simpson missed a 3 foot putt for par, ending with a bogey and with an even score with Stewart. Stewart would hold his nerve as Simpson continued to falter, eventually winning by 2 strokes.
Stewart would continue to play consistent golf in the coming years with numerous top-10 finishes, as well as wins in 1995 and 1999. It was in 1999 that Stewart would win his 3rd and final major at the famous Pinehurst No. 2 playing against Phil Mickelson. Stewart entered the final round in a group with Mickelson and only a 1 stroke lead. The 2 golfers matched each other down to the last hole, where Stewart faced a 15-foot putt to maintain par and claim victory. The win happened on Father’s Day, and after sinking the putt to achieve victory, Stewart pulled Mickelson aside to console him and remark that “There’s nothing like being a daddy”. The Mickelsons were expecting and Stewart, a father of two, took the time to congratulate Mickelson on his soon-to-be-born daughter rather than celebrating a momentous event in his own life.
Unfortunately, Stewart’s life would end just four months after his U.S. Open win and a month after he played his part in the American team’s 1999 Ryder Cup comeback. Stewart and 2 associates chartered a private jet to fly from his home in Orlando to Austin, Texas in order to look at some land for a possible upgrade to his alma mater’s golf facilities. He was then going to fly on to Houston for the Tour Championship. At some point early on in the flight, the cabin appears to have rapidly depressurized, leading to a severe lack of oxygen that would have incapacitated or killed every person on the plane. The plan continued to fly on autopilot until it ran out of fuel over rural South Dakota, crashing in a cattle field. Stewart, 2 other passengers and the 2 pilots all perished in the crash. Stewart left behind his wife and 2 children.
Stewart’s death shocked the golf world. Tributes came pouring in to the eccentric champion. At the Tour Championship, held less than a week after he died, many of the field wore knickers on the final day in tribute, while close friend Stuart Appleby wore one of Stewart’s own outfits with the permission of Stewart’s wife. At the 2000 U.S. Open, golfers including Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III teed off a “21 drive salute" to Stewart by driving balls into the Pacific Ocean. In addition, Stewart’s 1999 U.S. Open win is memorialized in a statue at Pinehurst, and his hometown of Springfield, Missouri has named the Bill and Payne Stewart Golf Course in his and his father’s honor.