Payne Relief: Payne Stewart reverses a narrow loss at the U.S. Open and wins a scintillating showdown at Pinehurst

Payne Stewart
Payne Stewart wins the 1999 U.S. Open, the second U.S. Open of his career.

This article first appeared in the June 28, 1999, issue of Sports Illustrated.

Payne Stewart isn't the first golfer to win two U.S. Opens in a decade—16 other players have done that since the tournament started in 1895—but last week, in the sand hills of North Carolina, Stewart became the first golfer to win the Open with two different personalities. Those who know and love him say the 42-year-old Missourian used to be "rude" (his mother), "arrogant" (his wife), "impatient and not very self-confident" (his caddie), "anxious and hyper" (his sports shrink) and an all-around Payne in the ass ( Stewart himself). That describes the fellow who won the 1991 U.S. Open at Hazeltine. He bore no resemblance at all to the chap who won the Open on Sunday, slipping past his playing partner, Phil Mickelson, by a stroke in a Father's Day scramblefest on the famed and treacherous Pinehurst No. 2 course.

It seems that Stewart is a man on a self-reforming jag, a quieter version of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning. Long recognized for his classic swing and his buckled-below-the-knees trousers, Stewart also was known for churlish behavior—snapping at strangers, glaring at tournament marshals. "It was immaturity," he said last week.

And it's history. In recent years Stewart has polished his people skills, fought his bad habits (smoking, dipping and whining), battled attention deficit disorder and turned to religion, embracing Christianity with the fervor of a prison convert. He may not run about town grinning in his nightshirt like Alastair Sim, but the new Stewart can handle disappointment. He proved that at last year's Open in San Francisco when he gave up a four-shot lead on Sunday, lost to Lee Janzen by a stroke and left the premises without biting off a single head.

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Not that there was any reason for Stewart to be nasty this year—not after he nailed a dramatic 18-foot putt for par on the final hole to secure the trophy, a first-place check for $625,000 and enough Ryder Cup points to virtually assure his place on the U.S. team come September. But his wife, Tracey, said late Sunday that it wouldn't have mattered if he'd flopped. "It used to be all golf with Payne," she said, "but now he's a lot more humble and patient."

Those, as it happens, are precisely the qualities needed to play Pinehurst No. 2, the best of some 400 courses designed by the legendary Donald Ross (1872-1948). Ross, who lived at Pinehurst and fiddled with No. 2 for more than 40 years, wasn't an architect in the modern sense—which is good, because a Donald Ross high-rise would have sloping floors and balconies without handrails. The crowned greens of No. 2 are so famously enigmatic that players go to bed visualizing them the way Ahab visualized the whale. The closely mowed fringe areas float and dip like the edges of a jellyfish; golf balls slide away from holes like rainwater rolling off a leaf. "It's grand," said Stewart after his victory.

The only question was whether No. 2's terrors were water-soluble. The tournament began last Thursday morning in a gentle but persistent rain, making the greens relatively soft and compliant. David Duval, the game's top-ranked player, shot a three-under-par 67 without flexing an eyebrow, and John Daly—last seen six-putting the 18th green at the Memorial two weeks earlier—birdied the first three holes on his way to a 68. "If you were going to shoot a low score, today was the day," said Davis Love III, who had a 70. Twenty-three players broke par, and one broke his hand: Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, who shot 75 and retired to his hotel room for an angry poke at the plaster.

Friday was bright and cool, making the greens firmer, and only three players had scores in the 60s. Some of the players began whispering that certain hole locations were "unfair." The flagstick at the 5th, for instance, could have weathered the barrage at Fort Sumter. Even so, Duval, Mickelson and Stewart finished with two-day totals of three under par, with Tiger Woods and three others two shots behind.

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