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10-25-99: Revisiting the day Payne Stewart died

From the archive: Ten years after a plane carrying Payne Stewart and five others crashed in a Mina, S.D., field, the memory of the day lingers in the golf community
By Jim Moriarty Illustrations by John Ritter
October 25, 2019
20 Jun 1999:  Payne Stewart of the United States celebrates victory after sinking his final putt during the last day of the 1999 US Open played on the number two course at Pinehurst in North Carolina, USA. \ Mandatory Credit: Harry How /Allsport

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in Golf World magazine in 2009 on the 10th anniversary of the plane accident that killed Payne Stewart and five others.

It was a cool morning in late October with a few puffy, white clouds in the sky. It would reach the middle-70s later in the afternoon. A light breeze made it a perfect day for golf, and flying. Michael Kling, a captain for Sunjet Aviation, came to work at 6:30 a.m. His first officer, Stephanie Bellegarrigue, arrived 15 minutes later. They inspected and fueled Learjet N47BA, loaded a cooler with ice and soft drinks on board and left Sanford, Fla., for Orlando International Airport at 7:54 a.m. to pick up passengers.

Payne Stewart and his wife, Tracey, were up early that morning, too. She had an appointment with a chiropractor and a meeting scheduled at the new house they were building in Isleworth. As he often did, Payne made pancakes for Tracey and his children, Chelsea and Aaron, before the three of them left for school around 7:30 a.m. The reigning U.S. Open champion and a member of the stunningly victorious U.S. Ryder Cup team, Stewart had angered some of his friends because he had backed out of a commitment to play in a fundraising event that day hosted by Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill. Instead, he was going to look at a potential golf course site near Dallas before going on to Houston for the Tour Championship.

Van Ardan, one of Payne's agents, picked him up just after 8 o'clock to go to the airport. The Learjet arrived about 8:10. Robert Fraley, another of Payne's agents, was dropped off at the airport by his wife, Dixie. Bruce Borland was a last-minute addition to the group. An architect in Jack Nicklaus' golf course design firm, Borland was anxious to work with Stewart on the new project and traveled up from North Palm Beach to join him on the trip.

The Learjet, with its two pilots and four passengers, took off from Orlando International at 9:19 a.m. After a series of altitude clearances, at 9:26 a.m. the pilot was instructed to change radio frequency and contact a Jacksonville controller who cleared the aircraft to climb to, and maintain, flight level 390 to Dallas. The response, "three nine zero bravo alpha," are the last known words to have been spoken on the airplane.

From that moment until 12:12 p.m. CDT, N47BA was first intercepted by an F-16 from the 40th Flight Test Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, then followed by two Oklahoma Air National Guard F-16s, joined by a pair of North Dakota Air National Guard F-16s. All reported the windows fogged or frozen and no sign of life. For nearly four hours, first in great confusion and then heartrending resignation, the saga played out on CNN as the Learjet porpoised through the air. Stuck in a climb, it bumped up against its maximum altitude of 48,900 feet, descended to a level where its engines functioned more efficiently and then climbed back to its apex over and over until it ran out of fuel.


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For golf people, Oct. 25, 1999 is a day the game stood still, a day they will never forget.

Jon Brendle, PGA Tour rules official: I lived next door to him. I was in the house. The Disney had just ended and Robinson Holloway [a researcher for ABC] was staying with me. Friday and Saturday night Payne came over to my house when I came home from work. Friday night he missed the cut. Saturday night there was a fight on and he and his father-in-law came over to my house and we watched the fight on HBO. Payne and I used to like to go to the House of Blues together. We kind of got kitchen passes together a lot. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, a young guy out of Louisiana we knew very well, was playing. So, I called him and said, 'Kenny Wayne's playing, do you want to go?' I'm on the phone talking to him. I could see him through the window. He goes, 'Jonny, I can't. I've got an early flight tomorrow.' So, I had a pretty good night. I'd just worked four straight weeks. A little extra drinking and everything, so I slept in a little bit. Robinson knocked on the door. She says, 'Jon, Jon, there's something wrong with Payne's plane.' I jumped up, put on shorts and a T-shirt and ran next door to the house. Tracey was talking to the airport verifying the tail numbers. She got off the phone and said, 'Jonny, how do you know?' I went, 'Tracey, it's on the news.'

Jim Nantz, CBS announcer: I was at Dunville's in Westport, Conn., having lunch with someone and the waiter came over and said, 'Man, that's a sad story about that golfer. The airplane's flying around, and they can't contact them or anything.' I excused myself, went over behind the bar, saw CNN and they were tracking it. I went back to the table and canceled my lunch order and by the time I made the one-mile drive to the side of the river I live on, CBS was calling the house. They needed me to come in to do something for the evening news. But first they wanted to know if I had any contacts. Could I confirm it was Tiger Woods on that plane? They had a mole at ABC News and somebody from CBS News picked up that ABC was whispering behind the scenes that Tiger was on the plane. I made some calls to the right people, and I could confirm that Tiger was not on the plane. Of course, within another hour, we found out it was Payne. I've never been back [to Dunville's] because it hurts too much. Every time I drive by it, I look at it and think of Payne.

Ernie Els: I was in the air the same time as him. When we landed my wife was all in tears because I was flying.

Tiger Woods: I was at Isleworth. I showed up in the men's grill. 'OK, obviously, it's not you.' My phone was blowing up. Everyone thought it was me. Right after that we figured out it was Payne. That's when it got a little tough. We all watched it on television. Tracey wasn't too far away. I wanted to be there in case she needed me.

Mark Calcavecchia: I was in my house in Phoenix. Actually Billy Mayfair's ex-wife heard, and she called my ex-wife—there are a lot of ex-wives involved here. Billy's ex and my ex used to be friends. We immediately turned on the news. CNN. The rest of the day, tracking his flight. Getting all the news like everybody else. It was almost like 9/11.

Lee Janzen: I was on the third tee at Bay Hill. I saw that someone had called me. Adrian Stills. It was odd that he called me, and then he called again. It was a missed call, no message. I was playing the Champions for Children pro-am the day after Disney. I immediately called him back because he called twice, and I didn't know what was going on. His response was, 'Oh, I'm glad you answered the phone.' Then he told me that there was a plane and all they knew was there was a professional golfer on it. I knew immediately who it was. I'd seen Payne two days before at the smoothie shop. He'd just gotten a haircut. He told me he was going to Dallas on Monday to check out a golf course site. When they said there was a plane headed to Dallas with a professional golfer on it and they'd lost contact, I knew who it was immediately. I was playing with the amateurs and their phones all kind of rang at the same time. They all picked up their phones, and they kind of looked at each other like, 'Is that possibly true?'

Mark O'Meara: The pastor was already over there at Payne's house. The plane hadn't crashed yet.

Arnold Palmer: I was on the golf course here, playing the Champions for Children. We had a whole variety of people reacting. Some of the guys quit. I played on, not knowing what had happened. As we finished, we were told they were in trouble. We tried to analyze what could have possibly happened. There really wasn't much we could do.

Roger Maltbie, NBC announcer: I was in Hawaii. We had a big golf outing on the island of Lanai at Jack Nicklaus' golf course there. I was on the practice tee. When you're in Hawaii, you're always teeing off at dawn. It's early in the morning. I'm hitting balls next to Bruce Devlin and Chi Chi Rodriguez. Bruce's phone goes off. And he turned absolutely ashen. He says, 'What are you crazy?' All of a sudden, he started to tear up. He says, 'You're not going to believe this. That was Kel [Devlin, Bruce's son], and Payne Stewart is in an airplane. They believe everybody's dead on the plane. Pilots, everybody. They're being followed by Air Force planes and they're saying they may shoot the plane down because it's going to crash when it runs out of fuel. It's flying erratically and headed north from Florida.' Payne and Tracey and my wife, Donna, and myself, for a number of years were very, very close. We shared a locker at Augusta, that kind of stuff. Played a lot of practice rounds together. She threw Donna's baby shower on the tour. Donna threw hers. My wife was still sleeping back in the hotel. I said, 'I can't play. I have to be with my wife.' I went back to the hotel and woke my wife up and told her what was going to happen.

David Fay, executive director, USGA: I was at my desk. I got one of those CNN reports on the computer. One of those headline news alerts. That's actually how I heard about 9/11, too. Just horrific.

Annika Sorenstam: I was in Northern California, in San Francisco, on an outing with Dave Stockton. The word started to spread, and I remember just standing there frozen and I was looking at Dave and he was looking at me. We really didn't know what to say. Then you start thinking what's going to happen. It was just so surreal. We kept tuning into the news. It happened so quickly, but then it happened so slowly.

Dave Stockton: I was just sick. There were four of us, Paul Azinger, Lanny Wadkins and Payne and I were always talking about Ryder Cup stuff. Strategies, what you would do, that kind of stuff.

Paul Azinger: I was on the I-4 interstate heading west. I turned my phone on, and it started ringing.

Andy Martinez, caddie: I was in an airport. It's something I don't like to remember. The thing about it is, he wasn't one of my favorite guys for a while. In the last couple years of his life, I really liked that guy. I can remember hitting tennis balls with him at a private airport in Chicago while we were waiting for a plane to go over to Scotland. I had a couple of rackets and a can of tennis balls. No net, but we had nothing to do for a while. It was a lot of fun doing that. I figured, down the road we were going to play some more tennis, with a net.

Mike Hicks, Stewart's caddie: I was on the ninth hole at Champions Club, checking out the course. The director of golf at my club called and said there was something going on with a plane, a PGA Tour player's plane, and they thought it was Payne Stewart. I wasn't buying that. Five minutes later my wife called. I left the course immediately and went to my hotel room and watched it on TV. That's what I did. Fluff [Mike Cowan] spent some time with me. I was getting calls. Peter Jacobsen. Many people called to see if I was on the plane or not.

Mike Cowan, caddie: I was with Hicksy. We prayed a little.

Joe LaCava, caddie: I was at a Residence Inn at Disney World with my wife and two kids, and we were distraught. Then, I was in real panic mode because I thought maybe Hicksy was on the plane. He's one of my best, best friends. The first thing I did was call him, and he says, 'No, I'm home.' That didn't make it better, but I was happy that he was OK, at least. And I knew Robert Fraley, as well, so I felt awful.

Tim Herron: I was at the Tour Championship on the driving range with Jim Furyk and a couple of other guys. We heard it could have been Payne's plane. They didn't know for a fact, but it looked like it. We went inside and watched it on TV. Just to make sure, just to verify, because no one really knew.

Dr. Bob Rotella, sport psychologist: I was with my daughter. We were on a recruiting trip to the University of Texas and Texas AM. I remember us both looking at each other and just going, 'No way.' We saw it on TV in the hotel room. We just stood there and watched it in amazement. No one knew if anyone was alive in the plane or not. You just kind of had this empty, empty feeling in your stomach.

Phil Mickelson: I was at my house getting ready to go to the Tour Championship. It was on the news. We postponed our leaving and watched. I didn't want to get in the air. I wanted to see what happened. You don't really lock in that it was real.

Jim Mackay, Mickelson's caddie: I was in my living room in Athens, Ga. I was channel surfing and came across CNN. I remember just being blown away by what was going on. Everybody was very concerned for Payne. I was also thinking about Mike Hicks. I just sat there, dumbstruck. You can't believe what you're seeing. Obviously, we'd been through that whole day in June with him at Pinehurst and then the Ryder Cup at Brookline. I think the last time I'd laid eyes on him was at the party after the Ryder Cup at Brookline. He had an adult beverage in his hand and was as happy as a person could humanly be.

Jack Nicklaus, who assembled his staff in the design area of his North Palm Beach offices to inform them of Borland's death: Bruce had come to me the day before and said, 'I've got an opportunity to hop on the airplane with Payne tomorrow rather than flying commercial to Dallas. I can drive up to Orlando and hop on the airplane with Payne and go with him.' I said it would probably be great for you, spend some time with him. He says, 'Do you mind?' because he was leaving a day earlier from what we'd scheduled. I said, 'No, no, go on.'

Chris DiMarco: Greg Warmoth, one of my buddies in Orlando who was a newscaster, called me and told me. Payne was always kind of an idol of mine. I immediately came in and made a few calls. I know I called David Toms because I wanted to find out if Hal Sutton was on that plane. They said it was him and another player. I had seen Hal at Disney, and he said that he thought he was going over to the Tour Championship with Payne. I think he had just had the twins, and they were going home Sunday and he was flying over Monday morning with Payne. So my initial reaction was, 'Oh, my goodness, not only was it Payne but it was Hal, too.'

Hal Sutton: I was at lunch with my dad, sitting there looking at the TV in Shreveport. At the time they didn't know who it was, but I had a feeling it was him based on the information they gave to begin with. I prayed. I didn't know what else to do.

Nick Price: I was on the putting green at Medalist Golf Club. I'll never forget it. The gal who runs the halfway house right next to the putting green said one of your friends, his plane's gone. So I ran inside. At that stage they didn't have any names. I phoned my wife. Phone calls went around and eventually we found out it was Payne's airplane. When the guy was flying around and the windows were all frozen up, you basically knew that they'd had decompression. It was an absolute tragedy, man. The first thing you think about was Tracey and his two kids. Are they watching this? Please, let them find out without having to go through all that. It was a very sad day, a very, very sad day for all of us.

Lanny Wadkins: I was home in my office in Dallas. I got about 10 phone calls because they were talking about a golfer coming from Orlando heading to Dallas and every time I answered the phone it was one of my friends saying, 'Thank God, you're home.' It's the kind of thing you think, 'Why? How?'

Dr. Dick Coop, Stewart's sport psychologist: I was getting ready to go to the airport to go to Kentucky to give a talk to the Kentucky section of the PGA of America. They called me. I'd just talked to Payne the night before for 20 minutes. When they said there's a golfer going to Dallas, I thought that can't be Payne because he was going to Houston. I couldn't get any information. If it was him, then I'd go straight to Orlando. But I couldn't get any information, so I went ahead. I didn't find out until I got to the airport in Louisville. Then I went on "Good Morning America" and all those shows. I was numb all the way through. I have no idea what I said.

John Cook: I was at Forest Lake Golf Course watching my son play the district high school golf championship. I went inside between nines to get something to drink. My phone was turned off. They were watching the whole thing go down. They said something when I walked in. I was in shock. I got the kids out of there. I couldn't say anything. By the end of the day, it kind of filtered around. Aaron wasn't there, but his school was. It just so happened First Academy [Aaron's school] ended up winning the district thing. They hadn't beaten anybody all year. So, that was kind of spooky. They made an announcement at the end of the day. Instead of having my son go home with the team, he came home with me. I ended up checking the messages on my phone and there were a hundred of them. I had to pull over. They thought O'Meara and I were on the plane. My sister had called. 'John, answer the phone, answer the phone.' Curt Byrum called, 'Answer your phone.' I was talking [until] I couldn't talk anymore. Then it finally hit me.

Tom Lehman: I was in Silverthorne, which is Dillon, Colo. We were building a golf course there. It was a place where there was not a lot of cell service. We were out on the course kind of up through the valleys. When I got back to where the car was, my phone started chirping. 'You have 19 messages.' So I started listening to the messages, and it was all, 'Tom, Tom, give me a call so I can make sure you're OK.' People didn't know who was in the plane.

Davis Love III, who lost his father in a plane crash in 1988: We were looking at a golf course site in Tennessee. Well, my mom called because she knew that I was flying back and forth, and they didn't know who it was in the beginning. She called and told me. We didn't know what to do. We ended up turning around and coming home, which didn't make a whole lot of sense, but it felt like the right thing to do. Get back with your family.

Corey Pavin: I was in the Dallas airport making a connection from Orlando to San Diego. I think we had a message on my phone that something was wrong. At the time they weren't sure what was going on. We just kind of heard something might be wrong with the plane. When we landed in Dallas, we thought, 'Oh, no,' because we were pretty sure. We didn't know who was on it. We didn't know if Tracey was on it. There were a lot of questions.

Billy Andrade: I was home. The night before was the All Century World Series game. Mark McGwire was staying with me. I was dropping him off at the airport. He was flying back to California. I saw it there, at the airport. CNN had something going on. I got to the house, and I live in Atlanta so I had 'em all calling. CNN. Larry King Live. Every news outlet. 'We'll come to your house and pick you up and bring you down to the studio,' and I didn't do any of it. You just think of his family, think of his wife, think of his kids. You just think how fragile everything is. How fragile life is and we take everything for granted, really, and it can go that quickly.

Tim Finchem: I was sitting in the conference room in my office with the president of ABC Sports, Howard Katz, who was in for a meeting with me. The way this office is configured, I was sitting at the conference table and the television was over my right shoulder. We had the news channel on, I guess CNN, but no audio. Seven or eight people were in the meeting and all of a sudden they were all staring at the screen. At that point, I think, the story was that there was a private jet that was out of control, and there was a rumor that a PGA Tour player was on board. A few minutes later they came back and said the rumor is Payne Stewart is aboard. We got on the phone and were talking to everybody and then, of course, the plane crashed and the governor of South Dakota called me and was describing the scene of the accident. It was one of those bizarre days. From a tour perspective, with his personality, his game, it left a hole that's never been filled.

Ben Crenshaw, captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team at Brookline, got a phone call from his ex-wife, Polly: It left a hole in my heart. It really did.

At 12:11 CDT the lead pilot from the North Dakota Air National Guard radioed the following message: "The target is descending, and he is doing multiple aileron rolls, looks like he's out of control … in a severe descent. Request emergency descent to follow target."

The Learjet ended its ghost voyage in a flat, empty field in a part of the country known for farming and pheasant hunting, just outside Mina, S.D. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the probable cause was a catastrophic loss of pressurization coupled with the inability of the crew to receive supplemental oxygen, both causes unknown.

The scar on the earth was an eight-foot-deep crater, 42 feet long and 21 feet wide with a conical-shaped debris field that extended some 75 feet. Other bits of wreckage were thrown twice as far. Because the airplane was out of fuel there was, of course, no fire. Things survived.

One artifact from the crash site was Stewart's harmonica, crushed flat. The day golf stood still was also the day the music died.