Thirteen years after his death, Stewart still looms large
By Alex Myers
I never met Payne Stewart. Nor did I ever cover his curtailed career, or even see him play in person. But 13 years after his tragic death, I've never forgotten how crushed I was to read about it in the local newspaper; and I'm still grateful for the role he ended up playing in my own journey.
The year 1999 was the first one I really got into watching golf, and the U.S. Open, with its wall-to-wall TV coverage, was the perfect sporting event for a lazy junior to plop himself down on the couch in between final exams. I remember getting so caught up in the action that I even backed out of playing baseball with my friends that Sunday. Yes, I was choosing to watch golf instead. No, that was not cool.
What unfolded that day at Pinehurst was one of the most memorable final rounds in major championship history -- and not just because it was probably the first one I watched from start to finish. The current top-ranked player in the world, David Duval, was in the mix, and there were charges from other marquee names like Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods. But it was the final pairing duel between Stewart and Phil Mickelson, famously on-call with his wife due to give birth to their first child at any moment, that took center stage.
Usually, I would have been drawn to the younger player in that scenario, but for some reason, I felt myself rooting for Stewart all day. OK, so maybe the initial reason was I had him on my fantasy golf team (I wish I was kidding). . . Nevertheless, I was pulling for Stewart to keep Mickelson major-less, and I'm still struck by how he was able to do it.
Stewart was always known as a great putter, but the way he rolled it that day, especially on the back nine, has taken on mythical proportions in my mind. Yes, there was the winning 18-footer for par on No. 18 (was it really only that long?) that set off a reaction so perfect (above) it would be immortalized as a statue behind the green. But there were plenty of other clutch, curling putts -- like the 30-footer (nowt that's more like it) for par on No. 16 -- that Stewart seemingly willed his way into the cup on the diabolical Donald Ross greens to earn his second U.S. Open title and third major overall.
It was truly inspiring. Not just to someone who was still stuck in a phase of questioning whether mini-golf was better than playing real golf, but to a sports nut hoping that one day watching similar drama unfold could be a bigger part of my life.
I still ditch my friends during weeks of major championships, but they don't make fun of me anymore. It's part of my job now. Thanks, Payne.
Alex Myers is a GolfDigest.com contributing editor.
(Photo by Getty Images)