I re-watched Payne Stewart's win at the 1999 U.S. Open and it was even more awesome than I remembered
(Editor's note: This originally ran ahead of the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Oct. 25, 2019, marks the 20th anniversary of Stewart's tragic death.)
The 1999 U.S. Open. Pinehurst. Payne. Phil. The putt.
Those are the broad strokes of how one of the greatest golf tournaments ever played out, but there was so much more. How has ESPN not done a "30 For 30" documentary on this one? Here's a sample tagline:
What if I told you that four of the best golfers in the world would battle to the final hole at the U.S. Open on one of the country's most historic courses, with the game's most popular announcer calling the action, all while one of the key players was waiting to hear if he'd have to leave the course at any minute to be by his wife's side for the birth of their first child, and that in an unimaginably tragic turn, the winner wouldn't live to see the end of the year?
Too long? Too bad.
Let's start with Tiger Woods. This was just before he was about to morph into Tiger "Don't even bother trying to beat him at majors" Woods. Tiger began the final round two shots behind Payne Stewart, but that quickly changed after he hit his approach to three feet on No. 1. Game on.
Two groups later, Stewart (one under), playing with Mickelson (even), teed off in the day's final pairing. Mickelson, who carried a beeper (they were still cool) to alert him if his wife went into labor, made a 10-footer for par on No. 1. Stewart split the fairway with his drive and hit a great approach to set up an easy opening birdie.
"Total flowing swing," NBC's Johnny Miller, who was in the booth with Dick Enberg, said of Stewart. "That does not look like a guy in his 40s. That swing might last awhile." I got a chill when he said that.
By the way, this was only 1999? The pixelated picture makes it seem like 1899. We'll discontinue the play-by-play and simply provide some other random observations:
-- Woods wore clothes that were a lot baggier back then. Of course, he was also a lot skinnier.
-- Tim Herron, playing with Woods in the second-to-last group, almost fell down going quickly up a steep bank to mark his ball before it rolled away. Sorry, Lumpy, that was funny.
-- "Most U.S. Opens you see guys struggle and succumbing to pressure. We are not seeing much of that today. We're seeing top players at the top of their games on a super tough course." Johnny Miller was at the top of his game as well.
-- Hey, there's David Duval! Remember when he was the best player in the world? That was then. But it wasn't his week, despite him being a co-leader after 36 holes and playing in one of the last groups on Sunday. Double D double bogeyed No. 9 and that was the end of him.
-- Vijay Singh, not Duval, was the fourth great golfer seriously in the mix that day. He was within one shot until his lone bogey of the day on the 16th hole.
-- Woods had AWFUL distance control. Three times he air-mailed greens from the center of the fairway with a wedge in his hand. He really should have won this thing.
-- Woods had good control putting with his 3-wood from off the green. He used to love doing that.
-- Woods also used to love sticking his tongue out:
-- And celebrating big putts with big reactions:
-- Mickelson was playing with Yonex clubs. Yep, someone almost won a major using Yonex clubs.
-- Apparently, Mickelson used to be a fairway-hitting machine. He hit 12 of 14 that day. We take it back, Yonex!
-- Roger Maltbie (ROG!) was already in his current role of walking with the final pairing. At one point, he notes the crowd support is equal between Payne and Phil. Crowd support will not be equal no matter who Phil is paired with at Pinehurst this year.
-- Stewart and Mickelson were put on the clock at the turn. Slow play isn't a new issue, people.
-- Woods lipped out two short putts, including one on No. 17 after an incredible birdie on 16 had gotten him to within one of the lead. Did we mention he really should have won this thing?
-- This(!) was the leader board late on Sunday:
-- Payne Stewart made arguably the greatest putt ever on No. 16, a double-breaking 25-footer for par. Fifteen years later, I still can't believe he made that putt.
-- The 17th hole was so good it deserves its own documentary. With the leaders tied, Stewart hit a brilliant 6-iron to four feet on the 196-yard par 3. When Mickelson matched Stewart with his own tight approach, Miller exclaimed "Oh what a shot! You're kidding me! . . . Woo!" Yes, Johnny Miller blurted out a "Woo!" on live TV. That's how good it was. See for yourself (Phil's shot starts at the 1:40 mark followed by the "Woo!" at about 1:54):
Unfortunately, we all know the rest of story for Stewart as well. Four months later -- and just a month after Stewart helped the U.S. win the 1999 Ryder Cup -- a private jet he and five others were flying on lost cabin pressure and flew on autopilot until it crashed into a field in South Dakota.
Stewart was gone, but the memory of his U.S. Open win and all that happened at Pinehurst on that magical day wasn't. Good thing. High-definition or not, this one is worth watching again.