The question was awkwardly posed, but the man being interviewed understood where the reporter was headed. No, “shocking” might not be how Aaron Stewart describes the fact that 20 years have now passed since the plane accident that took his father’s life. “But it’s definitely crazy to think [it’s been that long].”
For many, the events of Oct. 25, 1999 are still vivid, in part because of how surreal they seemed then and remain today. Payne Stewart had won his third major championship four months earlier at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, in mythical fashion. He just played for the victorious U.S. Ryder Cup team that had its own epic comeback story at Brookline. His game was as good as it ever was. His career was in full throat, only to be horribly silenced.
Two-thirds of Aaron Stewart’s life has been lived since that tragic day. He, along with his mother, Tracey, and older sister, Chelsea, have grieved and moved forward, as hard as both have been.
“You know they say time heals all wounds. I don’t necessarily think that’s true,” said Aaron, now 30 years old. “It definitely doesn’t leave you, that’s for sure. I’ve never stopped thinking about him, never stopped thinking about what it would be like if he were here, how our lives would be different.”
If Payne were here, he’d get to see something that would certainly make him proud: that his son has found his own place in golf. Last month, Aaron Stewart was named executive director for the Diamond Resort Tournament of Champions, the season-opening event on the LPGA Tour set for its second playing in January in Orlando. As the tournament’s new leader, Aaron will continue the family’s legacy in the game.
The younger Stewart is excited about his new role, and the tournament’s future. “It’s a testament to what they’ve done at the LPGA Tour, [commissioner] Mike Whan growing their season and their tournament schedule,” Stewart said. “Now it’s justified that they can have a champions-only event.”
As a teenager, Aaron wanted to mimic his father and play professionally. Like his dad, he went to SMU and competed for the Mustangs. But somewhere in college, the reality of how much more work he would need to put in to succeed on the PGA Tour caused him to re-evaluate things.
That SMU had just introduced a sports management major created an intriguing alternative. Stewart’s godfather, Robert Fraley, who also died in the plane accident, was Payne’s agent, and served as a different role model for Aaron. Upon graduation in 2012, Aaron worked for a year for the organizers of the Tavistock Cup in his hometown of Orlando. He then landed a spot with Diamond Resorts, in its newly introduced Diamond Marketing Mentorship Program. The nine-month training platform took him to Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Hawaii and Orlando as he became trained in the vacation-ownership industry.
After the program, Stewart settled in with Diamond, working as a regional marketing director through 2018. He got married and went on an extended honeymoon, but returned to the company—and to golf—in March 2019 when he joined Diamond’s golf tournament team as director of national partnerships. The group had been around since 2013, sponsoring tournaments, including a PGA Tour Champions Challenge season event that ultimately became the LPGA event in 2018.
Stewart enjoys being involved in the tournament because of its unique format. Only past champions from the previous two seasons are eligible, creating a limited field for the 72-hole tournament. The women are then joined by celebrities and athletes in the LPGA’s lone pro-am event.
Among those committed to play in 2020 are John Smoltz (who won the celebrity title a year ago), Roger Clemens, Ray Allen, Mardy Fish, as well as actors Jack Wagner and Larry the Cable Guy. Other past participants have included Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald and Brian Urlacher.
“The celebrities definitely help to diversify our audience,” Stewart says. “If you’re a baseball fan, and not necessarily a golfer, you’re still probably going to come out and want to check out some of these Hall of Famers we’ve got. Same thing for football, basketball, NHL, whatever it is. And even entertainment stars if you’re not into sports. … I think that also will help the LPGA and everything they’re trying to grow.”
Among the aspects of the tournament that Stewart enjoys is how having athletes involved from other sports amplifies the LPGA players' talents.
“People don’t really understand how good these girls are,” Stewart says. “You see some of these girls, they’ve got pretty tiny frames. They’re not a huge presence, but they get up and are ripping it down the middle 280 every time. You’re like, ‘How is that even possible?’ And then you’ve got a former NFL linebacker who’s getting outdriven. It kind of opens people’s eyes. They’re like, ‘Wow, these women have some serious game.’ We try to bring the celebrities that can keep up with them because honestly it’s a little bit nerve-racking.”
In roughly three months, tournament week will be upon him. It’s far enough away where Stewart is not too jumpy just yet, but close enough to where he’s starting to sweat the small stuff. As he becomes familiar with the job, the excitement level grows. Aaron is busy, but not so much that he doesn’t have time every now and then to reflect on what his father might have thought about his new role.
“I’m sure he’d be making sure I’m on my toes,” Aaron said. “He could probably lend a lot of great advice. … I think he’d be saying the same thing. You need to make sure you’ve got everything in line.”
As he finishes his thought, Aaron Stewart’s voice holds strong, despite the pain that remains 20 years after his father’s death. “I wish he was here.”