Payne Stewart Never Got To Be a Ryder Cup Captain, but His Presence Still Resonates at Hazeltine

Thursday September 22nd, 2016
Payne Stewart holds up his trophy after winning the 1991 U.S. Open at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. Stewart won his first Open in a Monday playoff.
David Cannon/Allsport/Getty Images

It was a typical October Monday as Mike Barge drove from his suburban Minneapolis home to his teaching job at Hazeltine National Golf Club.

Then he turned on the radio.

Plane crash. South Dakota. Payne Stewart thought to be on board. Unconfirmed.

Barge was stunned, shaken, hopeful that the report was untrue. When he arrived at Hazeltine, which is closed on Mondays, he needed to clear his mind. He ventured out far from the clubhouse and chipped and putted for 90 minutes. Then he returned to his car and drove home. A television news crew was waiting for him on his front lawn. His answering machine was flooded with messages.

Payne Stewart was dead.

The golf world had lost one of its biggest stars. Barge had lost a college teammate, a friend.

Stewart's death came less than a month after he had helped the U.S. to a thrilling Ryder Cup victory at Brookline and four months after he had won his second U.S. Open -- and third major title -- at Pinehurst No. 2. Stewart had edged Phil Mickelson by a stroke in what still is regarded as one of the greatest Opens. With Stewart's passing, the game mourned the loss of a great player, competitor, ambassador, husband, father of two, and much more.

"He was such a leader at the Ryder Cup," said Davis Love III, this year's Ryder Cup captain who also lost his father in a plane crash. "He was so dynamic and seemed happy and content. Then he was gone."

Stewart won his first U.S Open at Hazeltine in 1991, beating Scott Simpson in a Monday playoff. In the hours that followed he reconnected with Barge, Hazeltine's director of instruction since 1986, in the golf shop. They hugged, chatted and grinned for a camera, arms draped around each other with Stewart's hair disheveled and shirt untucked. Years later Stewart signed that photo. It's now on display at Hazeltine, which next week will play host to the 41st Ryder Cup.

Stewart's deep ties to Hazeltine beg the question: If he were still alive, would a 59-year-old Stewart be captaining the U.S Ryder Cup team this month?

"The fact that he won here, I think they would have looked pretty heavily at that," Barge said. "When you start checking off the boxes, I firmly believe he probably would have been picked (as captain) here."

Mike Barge, the director of instruction at Hazeltine, holds up a photo of him and Stewart that they took together after the 1991 U.S. Open, which was autographed by Stewart years later. Barge and Stewart were college teammates at SMU.
Courtesy Photo

Barge and Stewart were teammates for one year at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, during the 1975-76 season. Barge was a senior and lived off campus; Stewart, a freshman, lived in the dorms. While they didn't often fraternize off the course, they spent at least five days a week together at practice. Stewart traveled with the team to only a few tournaments that year.

"I don't think any of us looked at him then and said, ‘This guy will be a Tour player and win multiple majors,'" Barge said. "But he rededicated himself the last couple of years of school, and when he was a senior he and Fred Couples were some of the best players in the Southwest Conference."

Barge and Stewart saw each other again a few times in the late 80s, when Stewart was on Tour and Barge was starting out at Hazeltine. Barge would take trips and watch tournaments in Arizona or Florida and find Payne to say hello. "I made a point to say, 'Hey, Hazeltine in '91,'" Barge said, referring to the site of the 1991 U.S. Open. "I'll be there; so will you."

By the time the '91 Open rolled around, Stewart had won seven times on Tour and grabbed his first major at the 1989 PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes, near Chicago. But on Tuesday of Open week, Stewart, in golf slacks and a baseball cap, strolled into the golf shop at Hazeltine and went unrecognized. (He wore his trademark knickers and tam-o-shanter only in competition.) He had a nice chat with Barge and other staffers. Six days later, on the morning of his Monday playoff with Simpson, Stewart returned to the pro shop with far less anonymity. One of the shop's workers asked him to come back after the playoff and take a picture with the staff. Stewart did.

"He stuck around for quite a while," Barge said. "It was a fun time."

Barge saw Stewart just once more after that, when Stewart visited Hazeltine in 1995 to promote his new clothing line and play a round with corporate clients. Barge walked nine holes with him, and Stewart signed their picture from the Open. It reads: "Bargie, thanks for all the help. Your best friend always, Payne."

Four years later, Barge flew to Florida for Stewart's funeral.

It's impossible to know if Stewart would have captained the U.S. team at Hazeltine this year, but he certainly would have had the credentials, especially with a PGA Championship title on his resume. Indeed he might have been picked to lead a U.S. side long before Hazeltine.

At 59, Stewart would have been older than the average age of the last eight captains (50), but by no means too old to lead. Two years ago Tom Watson captained the U.S. team at 65.

Stewart's love for the Ryder Cup was well known. Tales from his five appearances are the stuff of legend. He wore red, white and blue pants and carried a boom box blaring Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA in the hallways of the team hotel; the music sometimes doubled as the team's 5 a.m. wakeup call. After the U.S. stormed back to win at Brookline, Stewart was the last man standing at the party, drinking from a champagne bottle while perched on top of a piano.

"He was one of the teammates that I loved to play with and for," Fred Couples said years later.

Stewart was 8-9-2 in his five Ryder Cup starts -- 1987, '89, '91, 93 and '99 -- but he's most remembered for the sportsmanship he showed during his final Ryder Cup match, in Sunday singles versus Colin Montgomerie in 1999.

The U.S. had already clinched the Cup as Stewart and Montgomerie were finishing their match. Monty, as so often happened, was hounded by the U.S. crowds during the round and throughout the week. On the 18th green, Stewart conceded Montgomerie's putt from about 20 feet, giving the Scotsman the victory and finalizing the score at 14 1/2 to 13 1/2.

A stone bridge on Hazeltine's 16th hole was dedicated to Stewart after his death. The hole will play as the 7th for the Ryder Cup.
Getty Images

A stone bridge dedicated to Stewart now leads golfers from the tee to the fairway at Hazeltine's par-4 16th hole. The bridge spans 25 feet over a creek, which empties into Lake Hazeltine.

The bridge was dedicated to Stewart three years after his death, on the Monday of the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine. Bagpipes played at dawn as a group gathered to remember the golfer and his '91 U.S. Open win. The 16th hole (which will play as the 7th hole during the Ryder Cup due to a course rerouting) was chosen not only for its scenic setting but also for the role it played in Stewart's triumph over Simpson. In the playoff, Stewart trailed Simpson by two strokes with three to play. Stewart made a long birdie putt on 16 as Simpson bogeyed, squaring the match. Stewart parred the final two holes and Simpson bogeyed both. (Stewart also had a long par save on 16 during the third round.)

The plaque next to the crossing reads: This bridge celebrates the life of Payne Stewart, 1991 U.S. Open champion, Hazeltine National Golf Club, Dedicated 12 August 2002.

"We said we would never forget Payne," Tom Lehman, a Minnesotan and friend of Stewart's, said during the 2002 dedication. "We haven't."

Not then, not ever.

"You certainly can't walk around the clubhouse more than five or six steps without seeing a picture of Payne, usually with a fist pump and a leg in the air," said Barge, who will work one of the scoreboards during the Ryder Cup. "He will certainly be on my mind for the Ryder Cup, and hopefully the players' minds, too."

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