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

September 23, 2009

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.

The tough conditions in Round 2 were a mere preamble to the third round, which proved to be one of the most thrilling and enervating in U.S. Open history. With a gusty wind putting starch in the flags, the course dried out like a sunbaked apricot. Suddenly the best approach shots landed on greens and slid off, rolling into chipping vales and bunkers. “Borderline sadistic,” said Scott Verplank, describing the hole locations. Woods’s third shot on the 1st hole was a chip from the left side of the green; his fourth shot was a chip from the right side of the green. Duval failed twice to hold a green from five yards, once from a swale and once from the sand, making 6 both times.

Steve Strieker’s 69 was the only par-breaking round on Saturday, and he did it with the aid of a 136-yard hole-out from a fairway bunker. Daly and six others shot 80 or higher, and the field’s stroke average soared to 75.97—and that was after many of the lesser players had been winnowed out by the 36-hole cut. Mickelson, who made brilliant par saves on the first three holes, finished his round of 73 looking gray and drained, like a father roused for a four o’clock feeding.

Or maybe Mickelson was just practicing the look. His wife, Amy, was home in Scottsdale, Ariz., scheduled to deliver their first child on June 30. Lefty said he would bolt the Open if Amy went into labor, so his caddie carried a vibrating pager. If it buzzed and if the right code came up—proving that the caller was Amy and not, say, Earl Woods—Mickelson was prepared to quit playing and race to the airport, where he had a plane standing by.

The situation made for great theater. Would the man who had won everything but a major championship swap his dream for a chance to welcome his firstborn into the world? Yes, said Phil. Would Amy actually summon him, knowing that he might never have a better chance to fulfill his destiny? Yes again, said Phil. “I’d be very disappointed if she were to go into labor and not call me.”

Stewart, meanwhile, was less into birth—he already has two children—than rebirth. On his wrist he wore a WWJD bracelet, the letters standing for What Would Jesus Do?, and he began each day by reading Biblical passages in his devotional book. “Payne talks more with God now,” said his mother, Bee, while celebrating with friends at her house in Springfield, Mo., on Sunday evening. “He’s a different man, a better son.” Payne also talks more with journalists and autograph seekers, whom he used to regard as lower life forms. “I gave him an attitude adjustment,” his mother said with a laugh. “He’s learned you can’t go around being rude to everyone.”

You want rude? Look at what Pinehurst No. 2 did to the field on Sunday. Duval shot his second straight 75 and looked like a fee-playing guest when he needed four iron shots to hit the 9th green. Ruder? Chris Perry waved the white towel of surrender in the 18th fairway and then crawled to the green. Rudest? Daly, the leading attention getter, failed two times to get an uphill putt to stay put on the par-4, 485-yard 8th. On the second try, as the ball was rolling back toward him, he hammered it onto and over the green, incurring a two-stroke penalty on the way to an 11 and a final-round 83. Afterward he vowed not to play in next year’s Open at Pebble Beach. “I’ve had it with the USGA,” he said. “I’ve never seen a course play so unfair on the last two days.”

Daly’s sentiments were shared by few. Since 1951, when the USGA hired Robert Trent Jones to trick up Oakland Hills, Open courses have looked like a bag lady in summer, smothered in fur collars and long grass skirts. The setup has fostered monotonous play, with careful tee shots, copybook irons and unimaginative wedges from six-inch rough. Pinehurst No. 2, on the other hand, was more like a Roaring ’20s flapper: sleek, sassy and a bit of a tease. The rough was clipped to three inches every day—peach fuzz, by Open standards—and the green boundaries shaved to provide more short-game options. “This is the first Open course I’ve played,” said Mickelson last Friday, “that tests every area of the player’s game.”

When the test was over, Woods, the world’s second-ranked player, had scored better than his rival, Duval. Woods pulled to within a stroke of the lead when he birdied the 16th—a par-4 so difficult that only three players hit it in regulation on Sunday—but he lipped out a short par putt on the 17th and bowed his head, knowing his shot at victory was probably gone. Woods finished third, tied with Vijay Singh at one over.

Stewart then proved that you don’t have to be top-ranked to be top-drawer. Mickelson led by one and had an eight-footer for par on the 16th when Stewart rolled in a stunning 25-footer for his own par. Mickelson then missed, making his only bogey in an otherwise steadfast round. Both players hit terrific tee shots at the par-3 17th, but it was Stewart who made his birdie putt, a three-footer, while Mickelson missed from inside 10 feet. That gave Stewart, at one under par, a one-shot lead on the 18th tee.

A playoff seemed likely when Stewart’s drive landed in the right rough. He laid up with his second shot and then hit a nine-iron to a spot 15 feet below the hole. He waited as Mickelson’s 25-foot birdie try slid an inch outside the cup for a two-putt par before stroking the winning putt smoothly up the hill and into the hole. “I never read a putt all week,” said his caddie, Mike Hicks. “He did his own thing, and he did it beautifully.”

The win gave Stewart his third major title. (He also won the won the 1989 PGA Championship.) In the locker room at Pinehurst, Tracey sat with the silver trophy, touching it as if it were a child. “I can’t believe it’s ours again,” she said, tears welling up. “When we sent it off to Pebble Beach in 1992, I remember packing it in the steel travel case. I said, I hope it comes back.’ “

Payne enjoyed the trophy, too, but he seemed to get a bigger kick from the look of happiness on Tracey’s face. “There used to be a void in my life,” he said, recalling a time when he would sooner kick a neighbor than love one. “The peace I have now is so wonderful. I don’t understand how I lived so long without it.”

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