One of my favorite Tour memories is draining a 20-footer on the 72nd hole to nip a young Payne Stewart at the 1987 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. The win was kind of serendipitous for me — I hadn’t won in four years, and the victory ended up being the second to last of my 25 PGA Tour titles. (The final one came seven years later at the same event, just two months shy of my 47th birthday.) When I look back on the 1987 Pro-Am, I think how disappointed Payne must have been, but then he went on that great run in the 1990s when he bagged two U.S. Opens and was seemingly in contention every week he played.
Payne’s tragic death in October 1999 was really a blow for golf. He was such a colorful character, and was great with the fans, the media and whoever wanted a piece of him. He’d be such a boon to the Champions Tour today, and probably its leading money winner — his gorgeous, perfectly timed swing was one of those motions that could last forever.
Like his knickers, Payne’s swing was also a throwback. He began by dragging the handle straight back — his hands sort of slid sideways without moving the clubhead away from the ball. Whereas today’s players snatch the clubhead past the handle at the very start, Payne did the opposite, so much so that halfway to the top of his swing, the shaft was still sticking straight out from his left arm. It’s an old-fashioned technique — that’s how players of the 1920s and 1930s had to work the club in order to properly load the hickory shafts that were the standard equipment of the day.
Despite its old-school roots, Payne’s motion is a good one to copy if you want to add lag to your swing and take the right kind of divot with your irons. By dragging the handle first and making your backswing as wide as possible, you can more easily set your wrists on the way down and drop the club into the power slot. This wide-to-narrow swing action is what helps you create lag in your swing, like you’re cracking a whip. It’s a speed move that also helps you take a divot in front of the ball instead of behind it. Add to it the incredible timing and rhythm Payne possessed (I bet he was a great dancer), and you have swing magic. I really miss the man and that swing.