The Greatest U.S. Open Ever: Payne Stewart, Phil Mickelson and the challenge of Pinehurst

Payne Stewart
Robert Beck/SI
Payne Stewart celebrates the biggest putt of his career at Pinehurst in 1999.

In the post-Nicklaus era no figure was more compelling than Payne Stewart. He looked like a movie star, he dressed like Old Tom Morris, and his swing was so delicious that it was often described in culinary terms, syrupy and buttery being the most common. Yet Stewart was a spicy personality who often rubbed people the wrong way. He could be churlish with the press and caustic with his colleagues. Known for his gamesmanship, Stewart refused to shake Tom Kite's hand after losing in a playoff at the 1989 Tour Championship. At that year's PGA Championship, Stewart scorched the final nine in 31 and prevailed when Mike Reid collapsed on the closing holes, but the victor rankled many when he admitted, "I said a prayer in the [scoring] tent: How about some good stuff for Payne Stewart one time?"

But Stewart was also a loving friend and enthusiastic host, a celebrated margarita mixologist who was always the life of the party. He inspired fierce loyalty among a generation of U.S. players as the heart and soul of the Ryder Cup during the blood feuds of the late 1980s and early '90s. Stewart was 34 when he won his second major championship, the '91 U.S. Open. A couple of years later he cashed in with a blockbuster deal with Spalding that compelled him to play game-improvement clubs ill-suited to his swing. He developed a series of compensating moves that sabotaged him under pressure, and over the next four seasons he racked up 28 top 10s but only one win. "We started calling him Avis," says Peter Jacobsen, who was the lead singer to Stewart's blues harmonica in the faux-rock band, Jake Trout and the Flounders.

Stewart's on-course struggles led to a period of deep introspection. He devoted more time to his children, Aaron and Chelsea. When his best friend, Paul Azinger, battled cancer throughout 1994, Stewart confronted his own mortality for the first time. His religious faith deepened, and he helped to popularize the w.w.j.d. bracelet on Tour.

At the start of the '98 season Stewart put an old set of blades back in his bag, renewing his confidence and energizing his game. At the U.S. Open he took a four-stroke lead into the final round but shot a shaky 74 and couldn't hold off Lee Janzen. Yet those in golf were struck by how gracious he was in defeat. As much as the loss hurt, Stewart believed it was a turning point. As his caddie, Mike Hicks, said later, "All it did was prove to him that he could do it again.... He was excited about the direction he was going."

Stewart broke a four-year victory drought in February 1999 at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and immediately turned his attention to the U.S. Open. The national championship had extra meaning for this adoptive Southerner because it was to be the first Open played at Pinehurst No. 2, Donald Ross's masterwork in the Sandhills of North Carolina. With its distinctive turtleback greens Pinehurst puts a premium on shotmaking, and the USGA offered an imaginative setup with less rough, allowing for more artistic expression. A vast swath of land, Pinehurst accommodated some of the biggest crowds ever at a U.S. Open. The thunderous cheers were a fitting sound track to a sport that was going big time.

The 1999 season was the first played under monster TV deals that had been negotiated in the wake of Tiger Woods's victory at the '97 Masters. But Woods, always the iconoclast, decided after that triumph to rebuild his swing into a tighter, more repeatable action. He needed two years to master the changes. A month before the '99 U.S. Open he called his swing guru, Butch Harmon, from the range at the Byron Nelson Classic: "I got it." Woods, 23, would win his next two starts, in Germany and at the Memorial, but even then he arrived at Pinehurst as only the co-headliner. David Duval had already won four times that season and had contended to the bitter end at the Masters, taking the No. 1 ranking from Woods and the dreaded title of Best Player Never to Have Won a Major from Phil Mickelson, who at 29 had racked up 13 PGA Tour victories and eight top 10s in the majors. But the enigmatic Duval, 27, was a question mark coming into Pinehurst because the week before he had singed the fingers on his right hand in a mishap with a steaming kettle. Those digits were heavily taped during his practice sessions.

Mickelson arrived at the Open in his own fog of uncertainty. Back home in Scottsdale, Ariz., his wife, Amy, was due to deliver the couple's first child. It was deeply important to Phil to be there for the birth, but ultimately he couldn't resist the siren song of a course with which he had fallen in love while attending a golf school there at 13. His caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, carried a beeper in his pocket, and Phil vowed to walk off the course if summoned by Amy.

All these story lines collided to create an unforgettable tournament that would be defined by life and death. Four months after the Open, Stewart, 42, was flying from Orlando to Houston for the Tour Championship when the Learjet he was on depressurized, incapacitating the pilots and passengers and sending the plane on a ghostly four-hour flight across the U.S. When it ran out of fuel it crashed into a field in South Dakota, killing all six aboard. "To lose Payne so soon after Pinehurst, it gave that tournament a kind of mythical quality," says Jacobsen. "I don't think there's any question it's the greatest U.S. Open of all time. All the elements came together: an iconic venue, two generations of stars battling on Sunday, a historic putt on the last hole. That alone would make it a classic. But Payne's death guaranteed that what happened there would live on forever."

Here's how the key figures remember the week.

PRETOURNAMENT TREMORS

CHUCK COOK (Stewart's swing coach): Payne missed the cut in Memphis the week before, and he was a little down about his game, so he came to Pinehurst early to get to work. I had given golf schools there for many years, so I knew every inch of the place. We spent the first two days walking the course, chipping and putting and marking strategy in his yardage book. Nobody was going to hit a lot of greens—where you miss it is the important thing. Payne was diagnosed with ADD and often had trouble concentrating, but he was stimulated by the challenge of Pinehurst. I could sense he was going to have a good week.

DAVID DUVAL: The concern about my fingers was overrated. As for all the talk about my needing to win a major, I wasn't paying attention to stuff like that.

PAUL AZINGER: Everybody in the world could see Tiger's and Phil's talent, but there were still pretty big questions about both of them. You looked at Phil, it was still unrealized potential. There was a real question whether he had what it took. And a lot of players were beginning to think Tiger was overrated, that the Masters win was part of a hot streak that had ended. He'd hardly won in the two years since. So they both came in with something to prove.

TIGER WOODS: I kept telling everybody I'm making some changes in my game, and it's going to take a while. It was only a matter of time before it started clicking.

AMY MICKELSON: Initially we weren't worried about the U.S. Open because Amanda's due date was June 30, two weeks later. But the pregnancy became a little complicated. I was on bed rest after five months, and then I started having preterm labor.

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