For me, every great major championship golf course has a great major champion who will always be associated with it, a matched pair if you like: Hogan and Carnoustie, Weiskopf and Troon, Nicklaus and pretty much everywhere, and of course Payne Stewart and Pinehurst. Mind you, I associate that swine—Stewart, that is—as much with a La Quinta hotel we both happened to be staying at. Every time I drive by it I see his face, innocent as a choirboy, and I feel a little ache that I never got to pay him back what he was owed.
The groundhog incident typified the sort of evil-minded idiocy, blind luck and comic genius that was pure Payne. Employing one of his favorite tricks, he had picked up my key card off the bar the previous evening and replaced it with someone else’s. I stumbled back to reception, muttering and cursing, when I found the key didn’t work for my room. But that was just the start of it. The next day Payne was driving back to the hotel after a morning tee time when he hit an unfortunate groundhog with his courtesy car. Ever the humanitarian, he stopped to see if the poor beast needed to be put out of its misery. It had croaked. William Payne Stewart was not the kind of man who would let a perfectly good dead groundhog go to waste, however, so he tossed it into the trunk and pressed on with malice aforethought. When he got back to the hotel, he retrieved his rodent and headed directly to my room, where he deposited it.
I arrived back tired, sweaty and too many over par, blundered into the room and dumped my clubs into the corner with a clatter. And wouldn’t you just know it, from underneath the desk a groundhog lunged straight at my nads. At this stage in my magnificent career my senses were Samurai-like, and I automatically recoiled into a crouching-tiger position that would have sent most adversaries reeling back in awe, if the move hadn’t been accompanied by an involuntary Girl Scout shriek and a small southern raspberry.
I tried to ward off what seemed like certain emasculation at the fangs of the rabid herbivore by wailing like a banshee and jumping from one piece of furniture to another. The furry little bastard was wearing a pair of my underpants, which were in considerably better nick than the pair I had on. I was standing on the desk, holding onto an electrical cord that I’d ripped through 18 inches of ceiling, when Punxsutawney Phil finally keeled over, snorted, and died. After an appropriate period of mourning, I gave the corpse a prod with my wedge. There was a knock at the door. I gathered myself and opened it to find the housekeeper standing there with a roll of toilet tissue in her hand. How kind, I thought. I wonder who could’ve requested that? The whole episode had probably lasted only a few seconds, but the horror was permanent. And it reeked of Payne, that worthless, steaming pile of Stewart, who would be mine. Game on.
When there are no witnesses to such an assault, there is only one way to conduct the investigation: pretend it didn’t happen. Wait for curiosity to get the better of the perp, who will then reveal himself. I acted cool at the bar that night, as if nothing had happened, after nervously spilling most of my first drink into my crotch. But Payne was unmoved. When I changed tactics and stated the facts of the case coolly, he maintained an air of indignation that made me look like a lunatic. Over the years that followed, I tried several times without success to filch his keycard, but the best I managed was to hide his courtesy car in the woods, an act made moot by his reaction, which was to steal mine and drive it back to our hotel, leaving me standing in the parking lot with a bag on my shoulder and two arms the same length. One down again.
I think of Payne often, and occasionally imagine him behind the wheel of that car, chewing gum and cackling to himself, and I see the juvenile mischief behind the facade of his stoic straight face. To win at Pinehurst, you have to keep it straight and narrow, which should have ruled Payne out, because that man was seldom straight, and never narrow. I miss him.