Payne Stewart: Remembering My Father

In 1999, Payne Stewart won his second U.S. Open title after sinking a 15 foot par putt on the 18th hole to defeat Phil Mickelson by 1 stroke. Four months later, Stewart died in a tragic plane crash at the age of 42.
Robert Beck/SI

This article appeared in the June 2008 issue of GOLF Magazine.

Payne Stewart grew up in America’s heartland, Springfield, Missouri, son of Bill Stewart, a furniture salesman whose life on the road he would someday understand all too well. In 1985, Bill Stewart died of cancer. He was only 64. Two years later Payne Stewart donated his winning check from the 1987 Bay Hill Invitational to the Florida Hospital Circle of Friends in his father’s honor.

I never met anyone more competitive or more intense than my father. My eighth-grade basketball team was playing on the road in the regional finals. As usual he was sitting in the crowd, letting the officials know exactly what he though of every single call. I guess since he himself had refereed basketball games after graduating from college, he felt he had the authority. No doubt he had the voice. It was so loud you could hear him from any part of the arena, and he knew it.

Finally, one of the officials, tired of being abused by some obnoxious stranger in the stands-and who could blame him?-called a technical foul. My coach went berserk. “Who is that technical on?” he shouted. “That man up there in the orange sweater,” the referee responded. Thanks a lot, Dad, I felt like shouting at him. I couldn’t hide far enough away on the bench. How could he do this to me? I vowed right there and then that I would never do that to my children.

So much for the innocent vows of youth. I recently did the same thing. I screamed at the umpire during my son’s baseball game. As exasperated as the official 25 years ago, the umpire turned around and said, “Any more out of you and you’re out of here.” I laughed, flashing back immediately to eighth grade. Yes, I had become my father. You know what, I’m glad. Because that man, wiser than I ever realized, taught me how to compete and how to care passionately about whatever you’re doing, which, in my profession, is absolutely essential.

I certainly brought a lot of passion to the golf course, probably because my father made me so mad. When I missed a short putt one time, he chuckled and said, “You got your right hand in there.” The next hole, when I missed another short one, he started laughing even louder. Nobody got to me like that. Years later, I figured out that he was showing me that the game—and life itself—would always be filled with distractions. You either succumb to them or you survive them. He taught me how to survive them.

On the golf course Dad was more my friend than my instructor. A few years into my marriage, however, he handed my wife a sheet of paper filled with scribbled instructions, such as: “Watch Payne’s head. Make sure his left foot is back and his right foot is up. Watch his address. Make sure he finishes high. Watch his speed on putting,” and so forth. Did he already know that at the time? Were the notes his parting gift to me? I don’t know. I’ll never know. I still have the sheet. My wife framed it for me one Christmas.

My dad hated golf carts, so we had plenty of time to talk on the course. One conversation I clearly remember is when I was preparing for my freshman year of SMU. He figured the moment had finally arrived to give me the famous father-son, birds-and-the-bees talk. So what if he was five years late? Maybe he needed some extra time to compose his thoughts.

I’m so much like him. I am also a traveling salesman of sorts, hopping from one town to another to do my job. I know how painful it is to be away from one’s family for a long period of time. That’s why I marvel at the way he was able to endure it. He left Monday mornings and returned Thursday evenings, sometimes Friday evenings, but he always devoted plenty of attention to us when he was home. What I experienced as a child has helped me be more sensitive to how my kids feel when I’m away for weeks at a time.

Money never meant that much to my dad. That’s probably because he didn’t have a tremendous amount of it. My father provided us with everything we needed, but the dollar never became an almighty object of adoration, as it is for so many people these days. He once looked at the new house I had built and said, “Why do you need something like that?” He couldn’t understand excess. That was his generation. My generation is different. We swim in excess. But even though I’ve accumulated many toys—I fly on a private plane, for goodness sake—I think I’ve always understood, thanks to him, that money is not the answer in life.

Did my dad enjoy his work? I don’t know. It’s not the kind of question one thinks about as a kid. I hope he did. I know, like many others who grew up in the Depression, it was very important to him that his children go to college and no child of Bill Stewart’s was going to drop out of college to go to work. He never allowed me to downgrade education. I grew up knowing that if someday I couldn’t hit 4-irons anymore, at least I would have a college degree to fall back on.

He prepared me for everything. Everything, that is, except his death. That, he neglected. The one memory that immediately pops out from his fight with cancer is the last day my father and I saw each other. My wife and I had just learned she was pregnant with our first child. I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to tell him. I also felt that the timing could not have been any better. I was sure it would cheer him up.

He was sleeping in his favorite chair when I walked up to him and whispered: “Dad, I got a secret to tell you. I’m going to be a daddy.” His eyes opened up and he smiled. He was going to be a grandfather. I expected him to congratulate me, to express his joy, to say something poignant, perhaps even break down. But, I swear to God, the first thing he said was, “Don’t buy expensive baby furniture.” That was such a typical Dad thing to say.

I probably should have been a little annoyed, but I wasn’t. That was his way of expressing love. I gave him a big hug and kiss for the last time. Funny thing is, I never cried at the funeral, which no one could figure out. I’m a very emotional person. I suppose that as the new man of the family, I had to show strength. Six months later I took my baby daughter back home to Springfield. We went to the cemetery and sat done. I finally had my big cry.

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