Payne Stewart's widow holds tight to his memory
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It was one of those moments when you remember where you were while it was happening. Long before Twitter and Facebook, we heard about it first on the radio at lunchtime. On a Monday morning in October 1999, a private plane had left an Orlando airport and was reported to be unresponsive, all onboard seeming to have lost consciousness. The plane carrying an unnamed golf professional and five others was on auto-pilot until it would run out of gas. The number of tour pros living in the Orlando area led to wild speculation. Eventually we learned the victims included Payne Stewart, who had won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 earlier that summer. Stewart was a popular player, a practical joker, known for wearing NFL team-colored knickers, and a national hero in Ryder Cup play.
When the Open returned to Pinehurst in 2005, enough time had passed to give perspective to Payne and his legacy. We asked contributing editor John Feinstein to visit the events of that fateful day with Stewart’s widow, Tracey, and his piece was published in the June 2005 issue. Since that time, their son, Aaron, went to Southern Methodist University and played for the Mustangs like his father. Aaron keeps the golf connection going as the executive director of the Diamond Resort Tournament of Champions, the LPGA’s season-opening event.
Feinstein has authored 35 books, including the best-sellers A Season on the Brink and A Good Walk Spoiled. He writes a sports column for the Washington Post and covers golf for Golf Digest. His columns appear regularly on GolfDigest.com. —Jerry Tarde
When the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst, a lot of people in golf will be thinking about the man who won't be there. NBC will replay what is referred to simply as The Putt, Payne Stewart's 15-foot par-saver on the 18th green in 1999 that clinched his second Open title. Tracey Stewart remembers that putt, even though she could see neither her husband nor the hole from where she was standing at that moment.
"All I could see was the ball rolling across the green," she said when we talked. "I didn't know where the hole was until the ball disappeared."
Tracey Stewart won't be at Pinehurst for the Open because Aaron, her 16-year-old son, will be playing in a junior tournament in Florida that week. But she admits that even if they did not have the schedule conflict, she would be reluctant to return to the scene of her husband's greatest victory.
"It's just very, very hard," she says. "It isn't that people don't make me feel welcome, they do. But I don't feel like I belong out there anymore. I'm not one of them, not part of the tour. People would never say it, but they have to be thinking, Why is she here? On the morning of October 25, I was part of the tour. That afternoon, I wasn't anymore."
As everyone who follows golf knows, Payne Stewart left his home outside Orlando on the morning of Oct. 25, 1999, to fly by private plane to Dallas to look at a piece of property for a golf course he was going to design. He and his agents, Robert Fraley and Van Ardan, and golf course designer Bruce Borland planned to spend a few hours in Dallas before Stewart went on to Houston for the Tour Championship.
But soon after the plane took off, the cabin lost pressure for undetermined reasons, and all aboard were incapacitated. F-16 fighter jets trailed the plane, first trying to determine if anyone inside was alive, then preparing to shoot it down if it appeared likely to crash in a populated area. By the time the plane ran out of fuel and crashed hours later in a field near Aberdeen, S.D., all six on board, including pilot Michael Kling and first officer Stephanie Bellegarrigue, were dead.
There is an undeniable sadness in Tracey's voice when she talks about how much she misses her husband—the father of their children.
"This isn't exactly my favorite thing," she says softly. She does it, on rare occasions, because she knows people still miss Payne and because she understands that it is inevitable that they will want to remember Pinehurst '99 during Pinehurst '05.
"I still run into people all the time who want to share memories of Payne with me," she says. "I understand why they do it. In fact, in some cases I know they need to do it. Everyone's intentions are good. But that doesn't make listening any easier."
Tracey remembers the day of the crash in vivid detail. "It was unusual because Monday was always our day to do things together," she says. "Payne had made a point of leaving for tournaments on Tuesday so he could have the extra day at home. Since he was leaving on Monday, I made a chiropractor appointment because I'd been having some trouble with my neck and back playing tennis. When I left the house, Payne was packing. Van was picking him up. We were building a house in Isleworth, and I had made an appointment to meet a friend of ours on the site.
"I went to the chiropractor first, ran some errands and then went out to the property," Tracey says. "When I got home, Gloria [the Stewarts' assistant] said there had been some kind of strange phone call about Payne's plane. I didn't really think that much of it. Then the phone rang again, and it was someone saying they had heard something had gone wrong with the plane. I looked at my watch and figured they should be in Dallas by then. So I called his cell phone. I got his voice mail."
The voice-mail message was typical Stewart: "Hi, you've reached Payne Stewart's cellphone. He's not with it right now, but if you leave a message, I'll be sure to tell him you called."
By then, the phone was ringing. Jon Brendle, a PGA Tour rules official and close family friend who lived next door in a house he and his wife, Martha, rented from the Stewarts, appeared at the front door, a stricken look on his face.
Brendle had just finished four straight weeks of 5 a.m. wake-ups on tour and had been sleeping late that morning. He had been awakened by Robinson Holloway, a friend of Martha's who worked on ABC's golf telecasts. Holloway had been staying in the house during the Disney tournament that had ended the previous day.
Robinson knocked on my door and said, 'Jon, you have to wake up. Something's going on with Payne's plane,' " Brendle recalls. "I couldn't imagine what she was talking about. I'd talked to Payne the night before because I was going to a blues bar we both liked and asked if he wanted to go along. He said he was going to spend the night with the family because he was leaving in the morning. I just said to him, 'Well, I'll have one for you,' and told him to play well in Houston."
After turning on the television and hearing that the F-16s were trailing the plane, Brendle had raced next door to find Tracey.
"It still hadn't quite registered with me just how bad this was," he says. "I was kind of mumbling, saying things like, 'They'll figure something out soon,' when Tracey just looked at me and said, 'Jonny, the plane's going to run out of gas.' That was when the whole thing really hit me."
"When I saw the look on his face at that moment," Tracey says, "that's when it first really hit me. He didn't say anything, but that's when I knew what he was thinking: They weren't going to wake up."
Brendle volunteered to go to the school and pick up the children so they could be home when news —whatever it was—came. Chelsea was two weeks shy of turning 14; Aaron was 10.
"I got in my car, and I turned everything off," Brendle says. "Turned off the radio, the cell phone. I wanted time to think, figure out what I was going to say to the kids when I got there. And if there was more news, I didn't want to know it. I didn't want to lose it the minute I looked at their faces."
The children were waiting for him in the school office when he got there, both confused. Brendle took a deep breath. "Something's gone wrong with your dad's plane," he said. "We think everyone's asleep on it, and they're trying to figure out how to wake them up."
Chelsea got very quiet. Aaron asked why they couldn't just call his dad on the cell phone and wake him. When they got in the car, Aaron insisted on using Brendle's cell phone. "Aaron, it won't work on an airplane," Chelsea said.
Brendle told Aaron to give it a try. Like Tracey and many others who made the same call that morning, Aaron got his father's voice mail. By the time Brendle turned onto the street where the Stewarts lived, he could see police cars and satellite trucks parked outside the house. From the back seat he heard Chelsea scream, "Oh my God!" Clearly, she knew exactly what was going on.
"That was the instant Chelsea knew," Tracey says. "Aaron still didn't quite understand it all. Of all the awful things I remember about that day, that's by far the worst, having to sit the kids down and explain to them exactly what had happened. I still can't push that memory out of my mind, hard as I might try."
When word came that the plane had crashed, Tracey Stewart took her children upstairs for a few minutes so the three of them could be alone. When they came downstairs, Aaron ran right to Brendle, and the two of them sat together for a while and talked about what they'd remember most about his dad.
The next few days for Tracey are–thankfully–a blur. "I remember we were sitting around planning the memorial service, trying to decide who was going to speak," she says. "Suddenly I heard myself saying, 'Well, I have to speak.' I'm not even sure where that came from. I was always very happy being in the shadows. When I went to tournaments, I almost never wore my player's-wife badge. I figured I knew who I was, there was no need for anyone else to know."
A new lifestyle
Payne and Tracey Stewart had finished the plans for their new home on the day the plane crashed. Tracey made some changes in the design but moved her family to the house the next year. Her lifestyle changed completely.
"I had always traveled with Payne a fair bit," she says. "We had help, and the kids understood. In fact, the week of the crash I was supposed to meet him in Houston, and we were going to fly to Valderrama together for the week that Sunday."
Now, Tracey Stewart rarely travels. "My life became my kids, 24/7," she says. "We had always spent time with them, both of us, but with Payne gone, I just felt the need to be with them all the time. I know it made them happy, but to be honest, I think I needed it at least as much as they did. I think Payne would be very proud of the way they've grown up and the people they've become."
Tracey is no longer on tour, but Brendle is still out there week after week, year after year. "There aren't many places we go that I don't think about Payne," he says. "We did so many things together in so many places, it's hard not to think about him. Some mornings, I'll be setting up the golf course, and I'll get to a certain hole and remember Payne making a big putt or screwing something up right there. I'm like Tracey though: The memories of that day are vivid and complete. I wish they weren't, but they are. I can't shake them."
Chelsea Stewart is now 19 and finishing her freshman year in college. Aaron is 16 and has become a fine junior player, a fact that is bittersweet for his mother.
"I know Payne would have enjoyed seeing how much Aaron is enjoying golf now," Tracey says. "He really didn't play golf until we moved to Isleworth. Sometimes, when I see Aaron with Chris O'Meara it breaks my heart because I know how much Mark enjoys having Chris with him out on tour and playing with him. Payne would have loved that. I think it's tougher on Aaron not having a dad because he's a boy and he was younger than Chelsea when Payne died. Lee Janzen has been fantastic with Aaron, and Stuart Appleby has tried to help, too. It was wonderful of Lee to play with Aaron in the father-son last year, but when I watched I couldn't help but think about how much Payne would have enjoyed doing that with Aaron."
Tracey Stewart is 45 now and could have an active social life if she so desired. She chooses not to. "I'm still completely in love with my husband," she says. "I know it's been 5½ years, but I still miss him every single day. I pray to God often to please make sure Payne knows how much we love and miss him, and to be sure Payne is proud of his children. I just don't think it's possible that I'll meet another Payne Stewart. I had a Rolls-Royce; there just isn't much point to me to look for anyone else. My social life is playing tennis at the club, and my children."
She is still an excellent tennis player, a member of the A+ women's team at Isleworth. Frequently she will visit Payne's grave, sit there with him, talk to him on occasion and then, almost inevitably, have a good cry.
"I miss him every day," she says. "Some of my friends tell me I have to move on, and I understand why they say that. But I still feel as if it happened last week, even though I know it's been much longer than that. I try not to be sad when I think about him. And there are so many wonderful memories. But when I think back to where Payne was in his life when he died, how happy he was with his family, with his golf, with himself, it makes me so sad. Maybe that will change someday, but I doubt it. I know I'll always miss him."