This article first appeared in the June 28, 1999, issue of Sports Illustrated.
Chalk up one more major championship in which golf’s twentysomethings had their succession delayed by an elder. Last year the spoiler was Mark O’Meara, and on Sunday at Pinehurst No. 2, it was Payne Stewart.
Any player old enough to remember watching the original episodes of Jonny Quest was supposedly through when Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Justin Leonard won the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open, respectively, in 1997. But ever since, the youngest winner in a major has been 33, and the 42—year—old Stewart even nudged the average upward.
On paper, what happened at Pinehurst didn’t make sense, and not just because Stewart was up against three of the most talented players in the game in Woods, David Duval and Phil Mickelson. Going into the Open, all three had proved themselves better finishers than Stewart, with a collective ratio of wins to runner—up finishes of 33 to 17. In contrast, Stewart had 10 victories against 25 seconds. It wasn’t his birdie runs that got him labeled Avis.
But the majors, and particularly the U.S. Open, are determined by qualities that transcend numbers. The shorthand term is experience. By the sternest measure, Stewart has experience. He has blown as many tournaments as any active player and has taken some of his most brutal hits in the Open. Going into Sunday, he had led more rounds of the championship—11—than any other player in history but had only achieved victory in 1991, at Hazeltine. In 1986, in 1993 and last year at the Olympic Club, Stewart had lost the lead on the final nine.
Plenty of players have been destroyed by this brand of experience, but Stewart took the Nietzschean route and got stronger. What he gained is something as tangible as—and even more valuable than—his underrated talent. Simply, peace. Through defeat he matured into a better person than the self—absorbed winner who high—fived a shattered Mike Reid after Reid handed Stewart the ’89 PGA. At Pinehurst, Stewart possessed the glazed countenance ironically reminiscent of the Raymond Floyd stare that unnerved a callow Stewart in the 1986 Open at Shinnecock Hills. Serenity was at the heart of his amazing resiliency at No. 2, and it was the lubricant that kept his swing and putting stroke so smooth. Finally, it was his advantage over the young lions.
“An athlete is used to proving himself by what he does on the field, and Payne was no different,” says Richard Coop, a sports psychologist who has worked with Stewart since 1988. “But that approach ultimately makes the result too important, and the resulting pressure gets in the way. It’s better to prove yourself by what you are in life. Then the understanding that you remain a good person no matter the outcome on the playing field allows you to release the pressure and more easily have a good outcome.”
Pinehurst proved that Mickelson, Woods and Duval are still trying to attain that knowledge. Certainly Mickelson, because of the impending birth of his first child, had a degree of peace at Pinehurst. On Sunday, however, his misses from inside 10 feet at 16 and 17 proved the difference.
Though fiery, Woods has perhaps the best understanding of the inner—peace process. Each time his physical game failed him at Pinehurst, his face took on a dead—eyed calm that manifested itself in an instantly stabilized game. It’s a quality that Woods exhibited in his U.S. Amateur victories, and while the warp—speed pace of his life after his Masters win has obviously upset his sense of peace, his recent performances indicate he is instinctively becoming more centered.
Incongruously, the most outwardly imperturbable of the threesome, Duval, may at the moment be the least peaceful. Since becoming the best player in the game, Duval has had to adjust to new pressures and expectations. The attention seems to have intruded on his dour but efficient approach. On Sunday, after birdieing two of the first three holes, Duval began to drift, and by the turn he had lost his way. It was instructive of how transitory the ability to win can be.
There is no denying that Mickelson, Woods and Duval lost a golden opportunity at Pinehurst. But each learned a lesson from the experienced Stewart: Above all, keep the peace.