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From The Archive

Dialogue with Payne Stewart

A past U.S. Open champion reflects on his wins, his losses—and himself

June 1999

This interview was conducted in early March, 1999 by Senior Editor Guy Yocom at Stewart's home in Orlando.

When Payne Stewart recently put his Orlando mansion up for sale, one of the prospective buyers was pop singer Michael Jackson. As Jackson toured the house, his manager informed him the seller was "the famous golfer, Payne Stewart." Jackson was clueless at first, and then his manager told him Stewart was the golfer who wore colorful knickers."Oh, that guy," said Jackson. "I know who he is."

There's no mistaking Stewart, not for his explosive haberdashery, his gorgeous golf swing or, as you're about to find out, his unrestrained views on golf, politics, parenting and life. Stewart has a deep well of experiences to draw from. He joined the PGA Tour in 1981, and over the next 18 years won 10 tournaments, two of them majors—the 1989 PGA Championship and 1991 U.S. Open. He contended in several other majors and was runner-up in two other U.S. Opens, to Lee Janzen at Baltusrol in 1993 and to Janzen again at Olympic last year. He has played on four Ryder Cup teams and currently is ranked sixth in career earnings with more than $10 million.

Yet Stewart has had fallow periods, too. His victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February was only his second win since the '91 Open. But he followed that up with a second-place finish at the Honda Classic in March, and with what he refers to as his "equipment problem" sorted out, Stewart is glint-eyed about making the '99 U.S. Ryder Cup team.

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Golf Digest: You've appeared on the cover of Golf Digest with a chimpanzee on your back. We've taken pictures of you dressed like Bobby Jones, posing with flappers, even had you stripped down to your thermal underwear. How do we talk you into all this stuff?
Payne Stewart: If you can't laugh at yourself, then how can you laugh at anybody else? I think people see the human side of you when you do that. I don't think it's healthy to take yourself too seriously.

That long dry spell after the '91 Open wasn't so funny. What happened?
The trouble started when I changed equipment companies back in 1992. I switched from playing a forged blade, which I had played my whole life, to an investment-cast club. At the same time, I switched from playing a wound ball to a solid ball. That was the big mistake, changing both clubs and ball at the same time. Neither one was right for me, but I didn't know that at the time. I thought maybe it was just the ball for a while, then thought it might just be the clubs. It messed me up good.

Why change your equipment in the first place, at a time when you were one of the best players in the world?
For one thing, when you're playing as well as I was at the time, you think you can play with anything. That isn't true, of course, but I didn't know it then. It also was a business decision. We were in the process of building a new home, and the contract was pretty lucrative. It gave me financial security, enough to be able to afford the house with no worries. But knowing what I know now, I would do it differently, because it cost me three years of my golf career. But there's still time. I'm 42 now, what I would consider prime time.

What was wrong with the equipment?
The two-piece ball I switched to spun too much. One shot would go the distance I thought it should, then the next one would fall short, and then the next one would go long. And they all felt the same when they came off the clubface. The ball just wasn't right for me.

The cast clubs were a big part of it, too. I found I wasn't getting that instant feedback I was used to with a forged blade. The sweet spot is a shade bigger, and when I didn't hit the ball dead center, I didn't know it, because it still felt great. So you start asking yourself, What's wrong here? Is there too much offset? Is the sweet spot too big? Is it the ball? Is it my swing?'' It's enough to about drive you crazy.

For a while, I think in 1994, it got to where I didn't want to practice. I lost confidence and desire, because I didn't want to go out there and play poorly. I mean, at the time I would rather come here and sit on the lake than go practice and work on my golf game. Today I have a different philosophy.

Did winning at Pebble Beach renew your enthusiasm?
Oh, yeah. My goal is to make the Ryder Cup team. I'm tired of us getting beat, and the only way that I can make a difference is to be on the team. I've been on four teams, and in my opinion it is the finest, purest golf event going. There is the money issue. Everybody is making a lot of money off of it except the players. We're the people who are providing every opportunity to make money off of it. Not that money is a driving force. It's an honor to play for your country.

You sound patriotic.
I am. I love my country. I'm one of those people who puts my hand on my heart when they play the national anthem. Heck, I sing the words. The first Ryder Cup I went to, at Muirfield Village (in 1987), when they raised the American flag and played "The Star Spangled Banner," tears came to my eyes. Yes, I'm a patriotic person. For these people who disgrace the American way and burn our flag and do all of these things...I say, don't live here and disgrace my country. Go live in the Middle East and see how you like it. Where if you steal something, they cut your hand off. Things like that.

We live in such a sheltered environment in the United States. I've been fortunate enough to have traveled all over the world, and I've seen things you only read about and see on the news. Vicious poverty. That's why I'm very proud of being American. I'm proud to pay taxes. I pay a lot of taxes, but it sure beats the alternative.

Why have the Americans been unsuccessful in recent Ryder Cups?
I haven't seen the emotion that was there when I played. When I finished playing my matches, I ran out to support my teammates. I was out there following them and cheering for them, slapping them on the back. I'm a get-in-your-face, let's-get-it-done kind of guy. I think I'm a team player.

Of your four Ryder Cups, the U.S. lost two of them.
No. I've been on two winning teams, one team that lost and one team that tied (but didn't win back the Cup in 1989). We didn't lose. That's the point that I tried to get across to the players who were on that team. I said, "Guys, we didn't lose. They didn't beat us."

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