The greatest U.S. Open ever: Payne Stewart, Phil Mickelson and the challenge of Pinehurst
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.
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.
PHIL MICKELSON: I didn’t decide I was going to go to Pinehurst until after we went to the doctor on Tuesday morning [of U.S. Open week]. He said it looked like there was at least another week to go, maybe two. Even though I got in only one practice round, I had been working on my game at home, so I was sharp.
AMY MICKELSON: When Phil left, it was the most emotional goodbye we’ve had. But he was so determined. He said, “I am going to win the U.S. Open, I’m going to come home, we’re going to have the baby, and it’s going to be the best week of our lives.”
PHIL MICKELSON: I had no doubt in my mind I was going to win the tournament.
JIM MACKAY: Oh, gawd, that beeper. I was stressed about it the whole time. If I would have lost that thing, I’d have been filing for unemployment. I heard plenty of people say after the fact, Oh, he wouldn’t have left, this and that. When he showed up in Pinehurst, he got in my grill and said, “I don’t care where I am, I want to know 10 seconds after this thing goes off.” He was dead serious.
AMY MICKELSON: On that Wednesday my mom took me to see Dr. [Burt] Webb. He checks me out and he goes, “Wow. Things have changed. If you had looked like this yesterday, I wouldn’t have told your husband he should go.” My heart just sank.
THE FIRST 36
Paired together on Thursday, Duval and Mickelson shoot three-under 67s to share the lead on a rain-softened course, while Woods and Stewart are a stroke back.
COREY PAVIN (Woods’s playing partner): A couple of times Tiger was in the rough or pine straw, and he just muscled the ball back to the fairway or onto the green. He was committed to every shot. Pinehurst is all about strategy, and Tiger is a master at course management. He looked like he was going to be tough to beat.
COOK: On the 8th hole the pin was back left. Payne aimed front right, but he pulled it. The ball stopped a foot from the hole. It was that kind of week.
In the second round Mickelson and Duval post 70s, while Stewart fires a 69 to join them in a three-way tie for the lead. With a 71, Woods is tied for fourth, two back.
STUART APPLEBY (Stewart’s playing partner): Payne loved to pick a fight with a golf course, and the U.S. Open is the biggest, baddest course there is. You could see his game was sharp and he was in a very competitive mood.
WOODS (postround): I won’t say my attitude is that much different [from previous U.S. Opens], just that my execution is a lot better. And to be able to go around this golf course and even though not swing as well as I’d like, I was able to still keep it in play, make pars, make birdies and just hang in there. There’s no way I could have done that last year.
PHIL MICKELSON (postround): [Amy] saw the doctor today. It looks like it’s still going to be another week and a half. I’m really not overly concerned.
AMY MICKELSON: On Friday, I started to have contractions. Phil and I are talking all the time on the phone, but I’m not saying what is going on, which was really stressful because we share everything. So we’d have these conversations, and as soon as he hung up I’d burst into tears.
FRED COUPLES (who shared a house in Pinehurst with Mickelson): He was very relaxed, as always. If you stay with Phil, you’re going to have a good time. The NBA and NHL playoffs were on TV every night, so we teased each other and bet a little on the games and just had a good time watching and ribbing each other. A few dollars changed hands, for sure.
Stewart and Duval are in the final group, immediately behind the dream pairing of Woods and Mickelson. There is an electricity in the air, and even the players are feeling frisky.
COOK: Before the third round Tiger and Payne were on the putting green and Tiger says to him, “When I start designing golf courses, I’m going to make them 9,000 yards long, and then you old guys won’t stand a chance.” Payne comes right back at him: “Well, if it’s the U.S. Open, you’ll still have to drive it in the fairway.” Tiger didn’t have an answer for that one.
AZINGER: Payne loved that Tiger was in the mix. He wasn’t intimidated by anyone. He felt like, This is my chance to take on the next generation.
After two days of baking in the sun, Pinehurst turns into a firm, fiery test for the third round. Afterward Janzen says, “I’ve been asked many times what’s the hardest golf course I’ve ever played. Now I have the answer.” Duval bogeys four of the first eight holes. Woods starts double bogey, bogey. When Stewart bogeys 8, 9 and 10, Mickelson suddenly has a three-shot lead.
MICKELSON: That round is kind of a blur. What I remember is that I wasn’t hitting it that great, and I was fighting hard for par on every hole.
TRACEY STEWART (Payne’s widow): The whole weekend was a testament to Payne’s maturity. Earlier in his career he could get very down on himself, and a couple of bogeys would derail his round. At Pinehurst he just kept moving forward. The U.S. Open pushes a lot of players to the breaking point, but I’m not sure I had ever seen Payne more at peace on a golf course.
Stewart stops his bogey skid with a tremendous up-and-down from the back bunker on the 11th and then runs off six more pars, which constitutes a charge on this day. After Mickelson bogeys 11, 15, 16 and 17, he is one stroke off Stewart’s lead standing in the 18th fairway.
MACKAY: Phil’s cut shot wasn’t working that week. He could only hit draws. So he drove it in 18 fairway, and the pin was way left, and he hadn’t hit a cut shot in 53 holes, but he says, “I want to birdie this hole and get in the last group, so I’m going to have to try and cut an 8-iron.” And he cut an 8-iron to five feet, made it and got in the last group for Sunday.
Standing in the 18th fairway, Stewart waits for Mickelson’s extended standing ovation to subside. Then he stuffs a 7-iron to 12 feet and makes a birdie of his own to retake sole possession of the lead.
AZINGER: Big brass ones.
Despite putting problems, Stewart grinds out a 72, and at one under he is the only player in the field below par. Mickelson’s 73 leaves him alone in second. With a 72, Woods is two back, tied for third with Tim Herron, while Duval’s 75 puts him three strokes off the lead, tied for fifth with Vijay Singh and Steve Stricker.
WOODS: I felt very pleased with my golf swing. I shallowed out nicely. I bowed the hand down when I needed to. My trajectory was good.
DUVAL: My game plan was fine, I just didn’t execute. It was a hard golf course, and you had to be very, very precise.
TRACEY STEWART: The crowds had gotten so large, I decided to stay in our rental house to watch on TV. I noticed Payne was moving his head on his putts, kind of peeking to try to watch the ball go in the hole. I knew his game so well, I could usually spot when something was wrong. So I drove over to the course after he was done and found him in the press tent. When I told him what I had observed, he said, “Well, I want to go work on it right now.” That was a big thing because the year before, at Olympic, he was unsettled by not getting to practice after the third round—he had stayed so long in the press tent, it got dark. So he stood on the practice green for quite a while, putting with his eyes closed and head down, to get the feel of following through without peeking. It was dark when we finally went home.
AMY MICKELSON: Saturday night my contractions started coming really fast, so we decided to go to the hospital. Phil happened to call right about then, but I didn’t say anything. At the hospital they put me on a monitor and gave me terbutaline to slow the contractions. Eventually Dr. Webb comes and stays with me. I’m asking him every five minutes, “Should I call Phil?” He keeps saying not yet. This went on for a few hours. Finally the contractions slowed enough to where he felt comfortable sending me home.
Following custom, the final round of the Open is on Father’s Day. Stewart is ironing his clothes at his rental house while watching the early finishers when NBC plays a tribute to Payne and his father, Bill, an accomplished amateur competitor. Bill signed up his son for his first Open qualifier when Payne was 15 and even played alongside him.
TRACEY STEWART: Payne had tears in his eyes watching that feature. He was an emotional person, an emotional player, and I believe that thinking of his father [who died of cancer in 1985] gave him that extra motivation to go out and win the tournament.
AMY MICKELSON: On Sunday morning Phil calls and I don’t tell him a thing about the night before. My lip is quivering. That was probably the most difficult moment of the whole thing.
For the final round Woods and Herron are the second-to-last pairing, while Stewart and Mickelson are the last. It is an unseasonably cool and damp day. Stewart, wearing a navy rain jacket, takes a pair of scissors to the sleeves to free up his swing, unwittingly creating a new fashion trend.
MACKAY: The biggest bleachers I have ever seen at a tournament in the U.S. were at that event, to the left of 18 green, and when you left the range to go to the 1st tee, you had to walk across 18 fairway pretty close to the green. To this day, one of the coolest memories of my caddying life came when Phil and Payne were walking to the tee. The whole grandstand stood up and cheered. It was almost like two gladiators going into the Colosseum.
Woods sets the tone for the day with a birdie on the 1st hole, but Stewart answers with one of his own, pushing his lead to two.
COOK: Payne showed almost no emotion. It was like, Ho hum. He’d gone to a different place mentally.
Mickelson cuts the lead in half with a curling 25-footer on the 7th hole, which will be his only birdie of the day. Duval has blown himself out of the tournament with bogeys on 6 and 8 and a double on the 9th. When Stewart bogeys the par-5 10th hole, he and Mickelson are tied for the lead. Singh has sneaked to within one with birdies at 8 and 10. Woods, meanwhile, plays a sweet approach to 12 feet on the 11th hole, but he pushes the birdie putt and blows the two-foot comebacker to fall three behind.
HERRON: That was shocking.
Stewart drives into a nasty lie in the right rough on the long par-4 12th hole and has to pitch out. The ensuing bogey gives Mickelson a one-stroke lead. At number 14, Woods drains a big-breaking 30-footer for birdie. He drops to one knee and pumps his fist, sending the gallery into a frenzy.
MICKELSON: You could feel the energy building. You knew Tiger was going to keep coming.
Stewart rallies on the 13th hole to bury a 15-footer for birdie and reclaim a share of the lead at one under.
MICKELSON: I knew he was going to make birdie.
PAYNE STEWART (postround): I just wasn’t going to hand the trophy over to him.
At 489 yards the 16th hole is, at that point, the longest par-4 in U.S. Open history, and for the final round it’s playing into the wind. In the rain-soaked left rough off the tee Singh tries to get home with a fairway wood but comes up short and takes a killing bogey. From 210 yards Woods reaches the green with a laserlike 4-iron and then makes the 12-foot birdie putt, uncorking a vintage uppercut. He’s a stroke off the lead.
HERRON: It was football-game loud. It would give you chills up and down your arms to hear it.
Back at the par-3 15th hole, Stewart pulls a 4-iron left of the green and misses an eight-footer for par, falling into a tie for second with Woods.
MICKELSON: I felt like I was in control of the tournament. I was leading, and it’s a very difficult course to make birdies on. All I needed was three pars.
At 16, Mickelson tugs his approach from 226 yards into the rough short and right of the green. Stewart mishits his 2-iron, and his ball dies 10 yards short of the green. He runs the next shot 30 feet past the hole.
MICKELSON: When he bladed his shot, I didn’t really consider him the No. 1 threat. I thought Tiger was.
On the downhill 196-yard par-3 17th, the pin is back left. Woods draws a “soft” 7-iron into the greenside bunker. A decent recovery shot leaves him a do-or-die five-footer to save par.
HERRON: He had played an incredible back nine, and he had all the momentum from the crowd. I was thinking there’s no way he misses the putt.
He misses the putt.
AZINGER: That’s the last important putt Tiger missed for a decade.
Back at 16, Mickelson has what he calls a “very easy” chip, but he leaves it eight feet short. “It’s one I’d like to redo,” he says. Stewart rams in his 30-footer for an unlikely par.
MICKELSON: If that ball doesn’t go in, it runs 15 to 20 feet by. It had the potential to go off the green.
JACOBSEN: I never get tired of watching replays of that putt. When it goes in, Payne just lifts his finger real casual-like, and he’s chomping his gum 100 miles an hour and that steely expression of his never changes.
RICK SMITH (then Mickelson’s swing coach): The conditions were so unusual for a U.S. Open—it was dark, it was misty. There was an almost eerie feeling. And you know, there’s this church across the street from Pinehurst. Seconds after Payne made that putt on 16, the bells started ringing, and that beautiful sound went out across the course. It felt like some kind of a sign.
MICKELSON: That’s when I realized, If I don’t make this putt, we’re tied. I thought I was going to have a two-stroke lead with two to go.
JOHNNY MILLER (on the NBC telecast, speaking of Mickelson): Biggest putt of his life.
Mickelson pulls the putt and takes his first bogey of the round. With honors at the par-3 17th hole, Stewart plays a gorgeous draw with a 6-iron to four feet.
TRACEY STEWART: That was the swing he was most proud of. Under all that pressure he calmly went through his routine and executed beautifully. He had learned to trust himself in those situations.
Mickelson answers with a high fade to six feet.
MACKAY: When Phil’s ball hit and got close to the hole, that was a smell-the-roses moment for me. The place went crazy.
Mickelson is uncertain about the break on his putt.
MACKAY: Phil said, “Hey, take a look at this.” I thought it was pretty straight. But [the putt] certainly turned a little right, and it missed. In hindsight it was probably left-edge. In my 22 years as a caddie, if I could have one do-over, it would be [reading] that putt, by a million miles.
MICKELSON: I just pulled it a little bit.
Stewart brushes in his birdie putt, and in the span of 20 minutes has gone from one down to one up.
COOK: Payne hit a good drive on 18, but it kicked right and went into the rough by a foot. Worst lie of the week. There was no way he could get to the green.
Stewart hacks out, leaving himself 77 yards from the flag. Mickelson splits the fairway—for the round this wild child missed only two—and from 178 yards follows with what he calls an “average” 7-iron that stops 30 feet right of the hole. Stewart hits a lob wedge 18 feet below the cup. Putting first, Mickelson plays a tad too much break and misses by an inch or two. The situation now facing Stewart is breathtaking in its simplicity: Make the putt and he’s the U.S. Open champion; miss it and he’s headed to an 18-hole Monday playoff.
STEWART: I kept my head still on that putt. And when I looked up, it was about two feet from the hole and it was breaking right in the center and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that I’d accomplished another dream of mine.
Stewart looses a guttural scream and two lusty fist pumps, and Hicks jumps into his arms and wraps his legs around his boss. Stewart then walks to Mickelson, cups Phil’s face in his hands and says, “Good luck with the baby. There’s nothing like being a father!”
AZINGER: When you talk about the greatest showings of sportsmanship in golf history, you have to say No. 1 is Nicklaus’s concession to Tony Jacklin at the Ryder Cup. But that right there is probably second. Payne could immediately empathize with Mickelson. Payne knows the agony of defeat. Who knew it more than him?
Behind the green Stewart has a long, tearful hug with his wife.
TRACEY STEWART: He held me so tight and said, “Lovey, I didn’t move my head all day on those putts, just like you said. I didn’t move it once.” It was a beautiful moment.
PAYNE STEWART (in the victor’s press conference): All I wanted to do was give myself a chance. And I’ve got to give thanks to the Lord for giving me the ability to believe in myself. Without that peace that I have in my heart, I wouldn’t be sitting here in front of you right now. So along with that, I never gave up. I kept playing. I kept plugging…. I sat here last night and told you all that if I won again that I’m going to enjoy it a lot more, and I will.
Mickelson arrives home at midnight. Amy goes into labor the next morning, about the time Phil would have been warming up for a playoff. Amanda is born that evening.
PHIL MICKELSON: Here we are 15 years later, and I can tell her with all sincerity that her birth is the most emotional moment of our lives. It’s something I would never want to miss, and I’m so glad I was able to be there, because it really is one of the greatest experiences in the world. I loved her even before I knew her.
Duval would blow a couple of more majors before breaking through at the 2001 British Open. After the greatest victory of his career he experienced a profound feeling of emptiness. He hasn’t won since. Meanwhile, Woods won the PGA Championship two months after Pinehurst, touching off a decade of unprecedented dominance.
JACOBSEN: What happened at Pinehurst hardened Tiger. It proved to him that just showing up wasn’t enough—if he wanted to win more majors, he would have to find another gear. And he found a gear no one else had. Payne showed him the way.
Mickelson has continued to experience serial heartbreak at the U.S. Open—a record six runner-up finishes and counting—but he has won five major championships, fulfilling the promise he displayed at Pinehurst. He remains golf’s highest-profile family man.
AZINGER: I believe one of the greatest influences Payne had was in how he helped change Phil as a man. Payne was a great example of a guy who had found perfect balance in life. Phil had always done the right thing, he’d always been a good guy, but golf was everything to him. What happened at Pinehurst bonded them forever, and it set priorities for Phil.
Four months after the U.S. Open, at the contentious Brookline Ryder Cup, Stewart displayed another supreme act of sportsmanship. With the crowd mercilessly heckling his singles opponent, Colin Montgomerie, Stewart conceded a 20-foot putt on the last hole, giving Monty the victory. Stewart was the team leader on the golf course and at the victory party after the U.S. regained the Cup. It was the last time most of his teammates saw him alive.
AMY MICKELSON: Payne gave those teams so much fire. He loved playing for his country. I remember him one time at the team hotel running down the hall in these red, white and blue pants, carrying a boom box that was playing “Born in the USA.” At Brookline he was the last one standing at the party. I still have this image of him on top of a piano drinking out of a champagne bottle.
Four weeks later Stewart perished in the plane crash, giving his U.S. Open triumph a larger meaning.
COOK: I don’t know if there is an outside force directing all of it, but the environment created in situations like that tournament pushes a certain outcome. It was such a great moment, the only outcome that made sense was for Payne to make that putt.
TRACEY STEWART: He was destined to win it. It was a great legacy for Payne and a great memory for all of us. So much joy before so much tragedy.