A young Payne Stewart rarely made it easy, even in victory
Author’s Note: Payne Stewart began the 1989 PGA Championship in superior form, with five top-five finishes that season, including a victory at Hilton Head and a pair of seconds. He shot an underwhelming 74 in the first round at muggy Kemper Lakes in suburban Chicago. It looked like yet another miss in a major for Stewart, who was 32 and, in his eighth season on the PGA Tour, known as the best player without one.
Stewart had the panache, the swing, the charisma—but no trophies from the four tournaments he now cared about most. People were beginning to wonder if the stylish figure in the plus-fours and flat cap, the cocksure Missourian with a reputation for bombast, had the maturity to win a major. Rounds of 66-69 left him six strokes behind 10 other players in the final round at Kemper Lakes.
He won. But in winning, Stewart also lost. His conduct during the finish, as leader Mike Reid lost three shots to par on Nos. 16 and 17, was something Stewart grew to regret. Regret accompanied him for many more years, until a renaissance season in 1999, when the world saw a new Payne Stewart.
He was a long way from that when he rose on Sunday, Aug. 13, 1989, to complete his 29th major championship—and win his first of three.
Payne Stewart chose the colors of the Chicago Bears for the final round. He played the front at even-par 36, capped by three irritating putts on the ninth that put him five strokes behind Mike Reid. Payne saw Jerry Pate, who was broadcasting on the course for ABC, on the walk to the 10th tee.
“If I can shoot 31 on the back nine, I could have a chance to win this thing,” he told Pate.
It seemed like another bold pronouncement, another empty assertion, another case of spouted words he could not back up. That chance would depend on luck: a calamitous, uncharacteristic collapse by Reid.
The 35-year-old from Utah, one of the shortest drivers on tour (247.4 yards off the tee) but also the most accurate (almost eight of 10 fairways on average, ranking second on the tour), played a cautious, reserved style of golf with his bag full of Wilson forged blades, Hogan Apex persimmon woods and balata-covered balls. Payne would need big mistakes from a man who didn’t typically make them.
Payne shot that 31 on the back nine at Kemper Lakes. He birdied four of the final five holes. Three groups behind him, Reid bogeyed the 469-yard 16th after his drive found water and doubled the 17th with a poor pitch and a pitifully rushed short putt for bogey. The two holes had turned the championship in the favor of Payne, who rolled a 12-foot putt for birdie 3 on the 18th hole and crouched in celebration as his ball tumbled into the cup.
“Never a doubt!” ABC color analyst Bob Rosburg told his audience as the putt fell. “Right in the middle!”
For the first time in his career, Payne had the clubhouse lead in a major.
Now he had to wait.
“Does this look as bad as I think it looks?” Paul Azinger asked when talking to his father on the phone.
But Payne did more than wait. The cameras followed him to the scoring tent, where he made a spectacle of himself as Reid, one shot behind Payne, prepared to play the final hole. Payne flitted among the officials in the tent, giggling and gesticulating with nervous energy, practically performing for the cameras. Reid drove to the fairway. Payne motioned to the Chicago Bears logo on his shirt and made a face. Reid struck his approach, a 5-iron to eight feet. Payne raced to the cooler and gulped a cup of water, chewing something furiously. He seemed unable to stand still. When Reid missed his putt to tie, Payne rushed outside.
Paul Azinger, who’d missed the cut, was watching the broadcast while talking to his father on the telephone.
“Does this look as bad as I think it looks?” he asked. He already knew the answer.
Back on the 18th green, Reid could barely process what had just happened. But he saw Payne ahead, between the green and the scoring tent, and thought about the scene at the Byron Nelson in 1985, after the playoff loss to Bob Eastwood. The image of Payne and his wife on their lonely walk through the shin-high grass gave Reid an odd sense of comfort. He convinced himself that Payne deserved this moment and marched to sign his card. He and Payne embraced. “This is what the game of golf is all about,” Rosburg told his television audience.
At his post-round press conference, a tearful Reid had to pause six times to gather himself. Part of his anguish came from his memories of the Masters that year. He’d held the final-round lead until the 15th hole, where he dumped his third shot into the water and, eventually, lost to Nick Faldo. Part of it came from the way he’d lost the PGA Championship—with a ball in the hazard on the 16th from the second-most accurate driver on tour, after all, and a short putt on the 17th missed in careless haste—and part of it came from the swiftness of his collapse. But another part of it had to have come from watching Payne celebrate so lustily at his expense.
“Sports is like life with the volume turned up,” Reid told reporters.
He sighed often. He seemed damaged but determined to mask it as best he could. Richard Mudry, a columnist for the Tampa Tribune, would return to his desk and write: “I’ve been around some great collapses in recent years—Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros, and Tom Kite coming most to mind—but never had I seen a player more publicly devastated than Reid.”
“Life goes on,” Reid said. “One of these days I’ll get there.”
But he wouldn’t. The quiet, reflective Reid, who spoke in almost a whisper, never would win a major championship. He later would recall the final round at Kemper Lakes with a wistful resignation, not so much about his late-round loss but about the way Payne further damaged his reputation by acting up for the television cameras in the scoring tent instead of conducting himself with more restraint. (“He wasn’t being his best self then,” Reid would say, nearly 20 years removed from that day.)
The reporters gathered for his post-round interview watched Reid leave the room and felt the weight of his own culpability remain like a scent. It was clear to them that this was a tournament outcome dictated by negligence: It was a story of failure more so than success. Payne had shot a spectacular 67 to finish four rounds at 12 under par. That score won. But there was a sense among the press, including many veteran reporters who admired Payne for his golf but not his personality, that Reid was more responsible for that winning score than Payne was.
And then the winner bounced in.
“Man!” Payne announced. “This is unbelievable!”
His tone chilled the room. It seemed out of place, like a prank at a funeral. While answering questions, Payne said he felt badly for Reid and that he was as surprised as anyone by his double-bogey 5 on the 17th hole.
“But I’m not going to kid you about how I feel,” he said. “His misfortune is my gain.”
The reporters were aghast.
Payne finally had his first major. He’d won $200,000, secured his place on the Ryder Cup team, and avoided another lonely walk. But when he admitted that he’d prayed for victory—“Lord, how about some good stuff for Payne Stewart this time?” he said he’d petitioned while cavorting in the scoring tent—the mood in his press conference darkened even more. An hour earlier, Payne had the chance to begin to repair his image. Instead, he’d damaged it more.
Peter Jacobsen, who’d tied for twenty-seventh at Kemper Lakes, found Payne later at a private reception for the winner of the Wanamaker Trophy. They’d become friends since their duel at Colonial and closer through their gigs as Jake Trout and the Flounders at golf tournaments. Jacobsen had seen all the sides of Payne, from his touching gesture after the playoff in Fort Worth to his donation after Bay Hill to the uneasy scene now at Kemper Lakes. He felt he needed to intervene.
Jacobsen asked Payne to meet him in the men’s room. He locked the door. He grabbed Payne by his shirt collar and pressed him into a wall.
“Stop!” Jacobsen demanded. “Look. You did not win this tournament. Mike Reid lost it.”
Payne flew to Oregon hours later for the Fred Meyer Challenge, a popular charity golf outing at Portland Golf Club hosted by Jacobsen and attended by the glitterati of golf. Payne took to the stage for an auction Monday night after too many cocktails and too much haughtiness in his glow of glory. Holding the trophy he’d won the day before. He looked directly at Palmer and said, “Arnold, don’t you wish you had one of these?”
Palmer and the rest of the room forced a laugh.
Payne rarely spoke of the lecture he got from Jacobsen at Kemper Lakes, but it left the impression Jacobsen intended. Many years later, Payne would approach Reid at a tournament and confess his regret. He would say he wasn’t the champion he wanted to be when he’d gotten caught up in the moment at Kemper Lakes. He would say he still needed to work on the man he wanted to be.
Excerpted from *The Last Stand of Payne Stewart: The Year Golf Changed Forever* by Kevin Robbins. Copyright © 2019. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.